Old Dog, New Tricks

[This beer was brewed on 2/8]

I tell people that I never brew the same beer twice; indeed, that in the 20 odd years I’ve been brewing, I have never repeated a recipe. I have brewed the same styles many times over, tweaking one ingredient or another, one part of the process, etc. That’s part of the fun of the hobby, for me, comparing the results when you change up something.

Last winter, I found my lager stride at last – after years of not really understanding how, or having the patience, to make good clean true lagers, I had a run of successes, mainly due to a household re-purposing – a former bedroom at the back of the house became my “man-cave” and I opted to keep it closed off and unheated for the winter, giving me a perfect consistent 40°F storage room. I made quite satisfying lagers – a Munich Helles, a Dunkel, a Vienna, a Schwarz, a Bohemian Pilsner, a couple Bocks, and a Dortmund Export. If you look back at that post from a year ago, you see that I used a standard German Lager yeast. It was a very nice beer, but I wanted to try it again with a different twist.

Even though I am “the Guru” to many, I feel it’s always possible, and important, to learn from others. Sometimes other brewers’ questions lead me to research and investigate. Sometimes another brewer’s experiences or their own research help me. When I am planning a lager of any kind, I almost always run the recipe by my Austrian friend Walter, he just seems to have an innate sense of what will work and what won’t. In the case of this year’s Dortmund, Walter and I hit on the idea of trying White Labs’ newly released Belgian Lager yeast (WLP815). Guessing that it is probably from someone like Stella Artois, I am hoping for a nice clean fermentation with few esters and an emphasis on the slightly diacetyl flavor that I love in malty golden lagers…

Salzburg-Dortmund-Antwerp Export Lager

5 gallons, all grain

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • 9 lbs. Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner malt
  • 1/2 lb. cara-pils malt
  • 2 oz. Hallertauer hop pellets
  • 1/2 oz. Perle hop pellets
  • White Labs Belgian Lager yeast (WLP815)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar (for priming)

Procedure: Crush grains. Heat 14 quarts water with kosher salt to 162°F. Mash in crushed grains and hold 75 minutes at 150°F. Heat another 15 quarts water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge, collecting 26 quarts sweet wort. Bring to boil, add 1/4 oz. Hallertauer hops, boil 30 minutes. Add the Perle hops, boil another 30 minutes. Add 3/4 oz. Hallertauer hops, boil 15 minutes. Add remaining 1 oz. Hallertauer hops, remove from heat. Chill to 80°F and take a hydrometer reading. Pour into a sanitized fermenter, splashing well to aerate. Pitch yeast, seal and ferment at 55°F for ten days. Rack to secondary, lager in bulk at 38 – 40°F for six weeks. Prime with corn sugar, bottle and condition cold (35 – 38°F) for six to eight weeks.

OG: 1064

IBU’s: 28

Notes on recipe: this is slightly bigger and fuller than your average Dortmund which should have an OG of something like 1055. Interestingly, the only addition I made to the brew from last January was another 1/2 lb. pilsner malt. I must have been more efficient this time! That’s OK, I like full bodied beers.

Notes on ingredients: Next time I will probably use a German Pilsner malt instead of the Bohemian, just to be different!

Enquiring minds…

What is beer? While I never hear the question in exactly these words, I find myself frequently having to define, explain, categorize and clarify this all-important concept. One runs across faulty, incomplete and otherwise just plain wrong definitions all over the place, even in so lofty a source as the otherwise amazing “Food Lovers’ Companion”. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Baby steps, first…

Beer is an alcohol-containing beverage made from the sugars found in malted grains. Generally but not exclusively made from barley, generally but not always carbonated, and usually but not always flavored with hops.

Easy, right? Not so fast…

Beer can basically be divided into two categories, two families if you will. The basis for this division depends on the temperature at which fermentation occurs. Generally. This is also dependent on what type of yeast is involved. More or less. Many yeast strains prefer warmer temperatures to work. This was considered true of all yeasts until the advent of refrigeration and micro-biology. Researchers then isolated strains that performed better at colder temperatures. A gross over-simplification, but the warm-fermented beers are classified as Ale, the cold-fermented beers are Lagers. Of course there is much more to it than that, and there are exceptions, but basically all beers are one or the other.

Being an Ale or a Lager has nothing to do with color, hop bitterness, alcoholic strength, region of origin, packaging or serving style. There are light, amber and dark beers in both categories, just as there are sweet, full-bodied versions and dry, bitter ones. Both Ales and Lagers come in low- and high-alcohol examples. Both can be bottled or draught, and both families of beer are found in virtually every corner of the beer-brewing and drinking world.

So here’s my contribution to enlightenment. The following is a breakdown of the various styles of beer, listed not by country or region of origin, not by color, not by relative strength or bitterness, but by whether they are brewed as an Ale or as a Lager.

Ales:

  • Pale Ale (including India Pale Ale)
  • Bitter (and ESB)
  • Porter
  • Stout (including Imperial Stout)
  • Scottish Ales (including Wee Heavy)
  • Amber Ale
  • Brown Ale
  • Red Ale
  • Wheat Beer (including Hefeweizen, Dunkelweizen, and Witbier)
  • Belgian Abbey and Trappist beers (dubbel, tripel, etc.)
  • Lambics (including Gueuze and fruited Lambics)
  • Saison and Bière de Garde
  • Old Ale, Strong Ale and Barleywine
  • Altbier and Kölsch

Lagers:

  • Pilsner
  • Munich Hell and Dunkel
  • Dortmund Export
  • Märzen, Vienna and Oktoberfest
  • Schwarzbier
  • American, Canadian and Mexican Lager
  • Bock and Doppelbock

There are a couple of “exceptions”, or at least they don’t fall neatly into one or the other. Steam Beers, also known as California Commons, are brewed with Lager yeast but at ale temperatures. Likewise, Cream Ales are very often brewed with a blend of Ale and Lager yeast. Herbed and fruited beers, smoked beers, and other flavored or “specialty” brews can be based on any of the other styles, so they are tricky to categorize.

I’m sure you’ll let me know if I missed a style, or if there’s a beer out there that you are not sure about. Keep in mind that modern brewers don’t always color within the lines… there are new hybrid styles, invented categories and deceptively named brews being trotted out all the time.

Tasting Notes – New Lagers

So what does a home brew guru do in between brewing sessions? Well, there’s racking and bottling, cleaning and organizing, of course, but I also get to try out new beers. Since I brew more or less weekly, I get a new beer “on-line” almost as frequently. One of the things I like about home brewing, especially the way I do it, is that I always have a variety of brews to taste. Variety is my ideal, and if I have two or three beers in an evening, it’s always two or three different styles.

Last night I decided to compare my three latest brews. Since the weather turned cold, I have been brewing mostly lagers. I have a room at the back of the house which is shut off and not heated during the winter (Yankee frugality or Scottish cheapness? or home brew guru cleverness? You decide…). In the dead of winter, when the rest of the heated house is between 60 – 65°F, and it’s anywhere from 20° down to -10°F outside, my back room stays a pretty constant 40 – 45°F. Perfect for lagering the way I do it.

First, a note about tasting. I am a BJCP-certified National Beer Judge. You laugh, but there’s actually a fairly rigorous training and educational program, culminating in a 3-hour exam. You need to know a little micro-biology, a little physics, a little chemistry, some math, some history… and you have to train your taste buds to pick out certain flavors, aromas, etc. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it. You can get more information on the program, or see the style guidelines we use to judge in competitions on the BJCP website.

There are basically four tangible components to tasting.

  • Aroma – does it smell right? do you smell malt, hops, yeast, something else?
  • Appearance – is it the right color? is the head the right color and consistency? is the clarity or lack of it appropriate?
  • Mouthfeel – can be thick, thin, anywhere in between, but this also refers to carbonation level and certain texture factors.
  • Taste – there are lots of different flavors potentially in any given beer – with the style guidelines in front of you, do you taste what’s supposed to be there, and are the off-flavors and inappropriate tastes not there? aftertaste? bitterness and sweetness?

Generally speaking, the method is:

  • Pour an appropriately-chilled beer into a clean, clear glass. Different beers are served at different temperatures for optimum flavor. A dirty or greasy (or soapy) glass will interfere with carbonation level, head retention as well as aroma and flavor.
  • Swirl the beer gently, place the beer under you nose and inhale.
  • Look at the beer, with a light source behind it. Note the color, clarity, head, carbonation in the beer itself.
  • Take a sip. Let the beer sit on the back of your tongue for a few seconds. Note carbonation, mouthfeel in general; allow the aroma to rise up into your sinus passage. Is the beer sweet/ bitter? Note all the flavors, good and bad, you notice. Now swallow. Is there an aftertaste? a different flavor or aroma after the liquid is gone?
  • Repeat the last step to confirm your impressions.If tasting another beer, cleanse your palate with a cracker or piece of bread.

So, in the order in which they were brewed, going back to November, here is what I thought of my three newest offerings.

Hellespont Munich Hell (brewed November 5 2009)
In the tradition of the original Munich golden lagers (“hell” in German means “light”, as opposed to “dunkel”, “dark”…) such as Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Paulaner and Löwenbräu.

Dark gold (possibly too dark for style), pale head, thinnish – not fully carbonated yet, perhaps. Aroma is malty, sweet, no obvious hop aroma, mildly alcoholic. Medium-to-full-bodied, slightly lacking in carbonation. Nice bitterness on the back of the tongue. Rich malty flavor, some alcohol. Will improve with age, more carbonation. B / B+

Innsbruck Vienna Lager (brewed November 12 2009)
This style is no longer really brewed in Austria, or if it is, it is not exported. Instead, the best known examples are from Mexico – Dos Equis and Negra Modelo. These breweries date back to when Mexico was part of the Austrian Empire.

Deep amber, vaguely reddish, crystal clear. Light beige head, well-developed and persistent. Caramel malty nose, slight toasted notes. Full bodied and smooth. Sweet malty finish, background bitterness in balance, mild hop flavor up-front. Very clean beer, no notable alcoholic flavor or aroma. no diacetyl. B+/A-

Black Bridge Schwarzbier (brewed November 24 2009)
Also known as a Schwarzpils, this style is dark (“Schwarz” is “black”), but more crisp and clean, like a good Czech Pilsner. Not many good examples known in the US. Ayinger makes one, Köstritzer is probably the most revered. Saranac’s Black Forest Lager is quite good.

Dark brown, not quite black. Slightly cloudy/muddy appearance. Beige head, full and thick. Much diacetyl in the nose – not appropriate for style, maybe, but yummy butterscotch and roasty notes. Flavor is roasty/malty, grain bitterness but also well-balanced hop bitterness and flavor. Alternating bitter / sweet / bitter flavors. A little out of style, too sweet, too much diacetyl, but a delicious beer. May dry out and be more in line after a few more weeks in the bottle. B / B+