It’s About The Beer

When my friend Walter won the Brewmaster’s Cup at the Greg Noonan Memorial Homebrew Competition in May (see my early May post), earning the right to have his Vienna Lager brewed at the Vermont Pub & Brewery, it set off a chain of memories both personal and beer-related. In the eight years or so that I worked with Greg at the Seven Barrel Brewery, I shed many of my beer prejudices and learned to appreciate a variety of styles and a number of variations on those styles. As Greg frequently said, “It’s about the beer”, which meant a couple different things to Greg – it’s about appreciating the beer, for what it is, in light of how it was brewed, and how it fits in traditions. But also how it moves the idea of beer forward – a new version of a classic style, while it may “offend” a purist, may also open a door to a really interesting new beer. There has been a lot of talk lately about “Black IPA” or Cascadian Dark Ales, including on this blog. In the back of my mind, I knew this, but it took a friendly email from Patrick Dakin, a brewer who also is somewhat of a Greg Noonan disciple, to remind me that in fact, the first “black IPA” many of us ever heard of was brewed by Greg, at the VPB and at the 7BB. The first of its kind, anywhere? I can’t say for sure, but it was certainly my first.

I often ask myself, what would Greg brew? Last week I looked through the Seven Barrel Brewery Brewers’ Handbook, trying to decide what to brew next, and realized that I had never brewed a Cream Ale, at least not since moving to all-grain brewing. I flipped the 7BBBH open to Greg’s recipe for the Ottaqueechie Cream Ale, and another memory came up, that of sitting with Greg and head brewer Paul White at the bar at Seven Barrel, comparing Kölsch, Steam Beers and Cream Ales. Greg said, over and over, that you could basically brew all three with the same yeast and change the fermentation temperatures, or you could brew all three with the same grain bill and vary only the yeast, or you could brew them all as completely different beers. That was what was great about working with Greg – he would frequently throw the rules and expectations out the window and start over, inventing a new beer style, just for fun; but he could also nail a classic traditional beer style, devising a recipe on the back of a beer coaster, and could quote the Lovibond ratings for the grains and SRM values of the wort, the AAU’s and IBU’s of the hops, the attenuation and flocculation rates of the yeast, time and temperature limits, etc. etc. etc. For Greg, it was always about the beer. There are many of us who are grateful for that.

First Branch Cream Ale

5 gallons, all-grain


  • 7 lbs. Weyermann lager malt
  • 14 oz. carapils malt
  • 1 lb. flaked maize
  • 2.35 HBU’s Mt. Hood hop pellets (1/2 oz. @ 4.7% aa)
  • 2.1 HBU’s Perle hop pellets (1/4 oz. @ 8.3% aa)
  • 2.1 HBU’s Perle hop pellets (1/4 oz. @ 8.3% aa)
  • White Labs European Ale Yeast (WLP011)
  • 3/4 cup corn sugar for priming

Procedure: Crush lager and carapils malts. Heat 13 quarts water to 164°F. Mash in crushed grains and maize, hold at 152°F for 60 minutes. Heat another 13 quarts water to 170°F, begin runoff and sparge. Collect 24 quarts sweet wort. Heat to boiling, add Mt. Hood hops. Boil 30 minutes, add first Perle hops. Boil 30 more minutes, add second Perle hops. Boil 15 more minutes (75 total), remove from heat. Chill to 80°F, take a hydrometer reading, pitch yeast. Seal and ferment cool (65 – 68°F) for ten days or so, rack to secondary. Age cooler (50 – 55°F) or cold (38 – 40°F) if you can, for ten to fourteen days. Prime and bottle, condition very cool (40 – 45°F) for two weeks.

OG: 1055

IBU’s: 21.6

Notes on style: I have always thought of Cream Ale as the opposite of a Steam Beer. Steam Beers are lagers, brewed at more of an ale temperature. Cream Ales are, as the name implies, ales, but generally fermented cool like a lager. I’ve also heard of brewers who blended batches of light lager and light ale. As I mentioned above, Greg Noonan believed, and rightly so, that you could brew this beer in a number of different ways, with a number of different yeasts. See the note below on yeast. The BJCP guidelines describe Cream Ale as “a clean, well-attenuated, flavorful American lawnmower beer.” This one is a bit bigger than the standard recipe, and ever-so-slightly more bitter.

Notes on yeast: I considered several different yeasts for this brew, but in the end chose the European Ale yeast (basically an Altbier strain). I wanted a clean yeast, one that would deal well with potential temperature fluctuations – it is late summer, and we are bouncing back and forth between 40’s at night and 80’s during the day. Other possibilities were the San Francisco Lager yeast (Steam Beer), German Kölsch, and American Lager.

2010 First Footer – Scottish Export 80 Shilling Ale

Being of Scottish heritage, I make it a tradition to brew a Scottish ale of some kind as my first brew of any new year. In Scotland, your luck and fate for the year are said to be determined by the first person who enters your home on New Year’s Day, and by how you treat them.

Many of my recipes, and my brewing in general, are inspired by my friend and mentor Greg Noonan. Greg wrote the book on Scotch Ale.  I worked with Greg, at the Seven Barrel Brewery, for several years, and kept in touch after I left there and he shifted his focus back to the Vermont Pub & Brewery in Burlington. I saw Greg for the last time during the summer of 2009. We had a good laugh, he bought our beers at the VPB, and we parted as we always did, with a hearty handshake. I was shocked and very saddened to hear of Greg’s passing just a few months later. I find it very appropriate to dedicate this first brew of the new year to Greg, with thanks and affection.


  • 8 lbs. pale malt
  • 2 oz. roasted barley
  • 2 oz. peated malt
  • 1.125 HBU’s East Kent Goldings hop pellets (.25 oz. @ 4.5% aa)
  • 4.6 HBU’s Fuggles hop pellets (1 oz. @ 4.6% aa)
  • White Labs Edinburgh Ale yeast (WLP028)
  • 2/3 cup light dry malt extract (for priming)

The night before brewing, crush the grains. On brew day, heat 13 quarts of water to 164°F. Mash in the grains, hold at 150 – 152°F for 90 minutes. Heat 13 more quarts of water to 170°F. Begin runoff and sparge. Take the first half-gallon of wort and boil it for 20 minutes (to caramelize and increase the “butterscotch” flavors). Add this back into the rest of the wort. After runoff and sparging you should have about 5 gallons of sweet wort. Bring to a boil. Add EKG hops, boil 15 minutes. Add half the Fuggles hops, boil another 15 minutes. Add the rest of the Fuggles hops, boil another 30 minutes (total 60 minutes). Remove from heat, chill to 80 – 85°F. Pour into fermenter, splash and oxygenate as much as possible. Take hydrometer reading, pitch Edinburgh yeast, seal up and set aside to ferment at 65 – 70°F. After 10 -12 days, rack to secondary and age two to three weeks. Bottle with dry malt extract, condition at least two weeks.

Original Gravity: 1050
IBUs: 19

Style notes: This is not a strong beer, more of a session beer. Scottish ales are generally labeled by the old system, based on the tax per barrel. The stronger the beer, the higher the tax. This is an 80 shilling ale, about mid-way up the tax scale. The really strong Scotch Ales, also known as “wee heavies”, are often labeled as 140 shilling or more. Not also that the hops in this beer are restrained. We Scots are cheap, as many know, and hops are (or were, back in the day) expensive. Scottish ales are more malty, less bitter, less hoppy than English ales of similar strength.

Brewing notes: This ale would not normally have peated malt in it. I like the smoky flavor the peat imparts. Sue me.

I was assisted in brewing this ale by the immensely talented Rick Scully, webmaster, brewer, shepherd and friend. Who was also building this website and installing wireless internet in my house at the same time. I bow in his general direction.