Sunday, May 31, 2009

Bella Wheat, a.k.a. The Leap Year Beer

Today I'm writing about my first homebrewing experience: Bella Wheat - a Bavarian wheat beer I brewed on February 29, 2008.

When he sold me my brew kit, Paul Zocco, owner of Zok's, encouraged me to first brew a few batches of beer straight from a pre-hopped kit in order to get used to the process. I purchased two kits that day, one of which was the Edme Microbrewery Series Wheat Beer that became my first batch; the other was a Northern Brown Ale kit from Ironmaster (more on that later).

I wanted to start with a wheat beer because Elena is a big fan of hefeweizens, and this was the closest I could get (from Zok's) in a kit. A true hefeweizen (hefe means "with yeast" and weizen, "wheat") is unfiltered, i.e. the little yeasties are permitted to reside in the finished product, making it rich in both character and vitamin B12!

I must have studied the four sets of instructions I ended up with (a cheat sheet from Zok, the instructions on the side of the malt extract, and the Beginners Steps in my newly purchased homebrew books - How to Brew by John Palmer and The Complete Joy of Homebrewing: Third Edition by Charlie Papazian) for a week or so before feeling fully prepared to begin. Thankfully, and not surprisingly, all four sets of instructions gave similar guidance: some recommended a longer or shorter boiling of the wort; one said it was imperative, another optional, to start the yeast in water before pitching into the lukewarm wort.

Facing four sets of slightly differing instructions caused me to experience feelings of intimidation followed closely by liberation. Truth is, there isn't much to brewing beer (from a kit, anyway). And, even if you screw up (a little bit), the final product is usually more interesting than most of the six-packs you find in stores. Charlie Papazian, the Godfather of American Homebrewing, offers the following advice to homebrewers young or old, novice or experienced: Relax. Don't worry. Have a homebrew.

Brew Day
On this day, as I didn't have any homebrew yet, I probably reached for an offering from Otter Creek, whose mixed-twelves were frequent visitors to the beer shelf that winter. But I did relax, and not worry...too much.

After sanitizing all of the equipment I would be using that day, I began by combining the two cans of hopped malt-extract (12 1/2 c.) with water (11 1/2 c.) and brought the mixture to a boil, stirring vigorously to prevent the molasses-like extract from scorching on the bottom of my aluminum brew pot. After maintaining the boil for 30 minutes, I poured the near-boiling mixture into my fermenting bucket, which contained enough chilled (not quite frozen but plenty cold) water to give me a total liquid volume of pretty close to 5 gallons.

The initial temperature of the fermenting bucket, after I added the hot wort to the cold water, was 90-degrees F, and my task now was to reduce the temperature as fast as possible to room temperature so as not to kill off the yeast I was about to add.

I hoisted the bucket to our kitchen sink, packed ice around it and stirred as fast as I could to bring the temperature down as quickly as possible - speed is of the essence. After 15 minutes, I pitched (added) the yeast, aerated (introduced oxygen, which yeasties like, to the wort by stirring vigorously (again)) the green beer for 10 minutes, put the lid on, and inserted the airlock. And that was basically it. In a lot of ways, brewing from a kit is a lot like preparing canned soup for fifty.

Fermentation Cha-cha-cha
At the time, we were living in a charming but drafty old house in Collinsville, Connecticut, and the only place in our apartment warm enough for the beer to be happy was next to the radiator. I was elated, 18 hours after sealing the bucket, to notice the first few bubbles of CO2 escaping through the airlock. Every time I passed through the living room, I would crouch down, wait for a bubble to pop, and sniff the escaping air for some clue as to what the final product would be like. Signs of fermentation ceased after about four or five days; and, after eight days, I trasferred the beer to a secondary fermenter.

Bottling Day
On March 20, after watching Michigan State (my alma mater) knock Temple out of the NCAA Tourney, I bottled and capped with no surprises. My notes from bottling day say it tasted of alcohol, but not much else. That was good enough for me at this point - evidence of, at least partial, success.

Here's what I wrote in my beer journal on March 27: Final product was darker and more flavorful than I expected. I like the flavor despite the intensity, but will try one can of extract plus the comparable amount of dried malt next time. Bella Wheat tastes very similar to a beer Carlo (my father-in-law) gave me for my birthday - Lumpy Gravy a 2007 brown ale from Lagunita's Brewing Company.

And on November 14: ...Elena and I chilled and drank the last bottle of Bella Wheat. The beer matured into what Elena describes as "thick and caramely." I was impressed by the head that developed, and the rich, sweet aroma. The sweetness approaches unpleasant, with subtle cidery hints. The effects of priming sugar over time? In any case, the character of the beer is much changed from the beer I brewed and drank this spring. This is an argument in favor of setting aside a few beers from each batch to sample over time. In this case, 9 months later.

Bell Wheat was my first born, and consequently holds a special place in my heart. I was very proud to share that beer with friends, family, and coworkers, even though the process was simple enough for a toddler to pull off and the final product reminded people of anything but wheat...

I'm think about brewing another Wheat, or maybe a Saison, this summer, once Elena and I move back to Connecticut in July. One tempting recipe I found recently was for an Apricot Wheat, which called for pureed apricots and sounded like a real summer hit. I found the recipe while surfing Bryon's blog. The recipe was offered by Hunington in response to the all important question, What should I brew for a summer family get together? Good question Bryon. And great answer Hunington. Stay tuned...


Sunday, May 24, 2009

Live from Grizzly Peak... It's Sunday Afternoon!

Today's post comes to you live from Grizzly Peak, one of three brewpubs - on the same street, in fact - in downtown Ann Arbor. I'm sitting here for three reasons. First, Fox Sports Detroit is not included in basic cable, and I'm tired of listening to Tigers games on AM radio. Second, the pub is WiFi equipped. And third, I felt like having a pint!

Out of kindness, or is it an aversion to promoting mediocrity, I won't bother naming the third brewpub; but, the other brewpub, Arbor Brewing Company, is great. I'm particularly fond of their Sacred Cow IPA, which tastes a little like apricots and pine needles (in a good way). A real summer treat! Elena, who happens to be an excellent baker and happens to have an excellent blog devoted to her baking adventures (no, I am not above shamelessly promoting my wife's blog), really likes ABC's Brasserie Blonde, a citrusy, orange-hued Belgian ale flaunting a subtle spiciness.

As a former English teacher, I'm a big fan of analogies. The best analogy I can come up with to compare Grizzly and Arbor (ABC) would be high school cross country teams...just hear me out. ABC is the well coached team with a stable of finely conditioned athletes. From top to bottom, they know how to compete and win more meets than they lose because of their depth. In other words, you will rarely be disappointed with a pint from ABC. Grizzly, on the other hand, won't win many meets, because the few star runners (and no Prefontaines, mind you) on the squad are not enough to compensate for the slackers. Their Bearpaw Porter is pretty good (a B+ on Beer Advocate), but I've had a few duds, too.

Today's pint, however, is not one of them. I'm drinking Wee Owen's Roggen from the rotating tap; a beer and a style - roggenbier - I hadn't heard of before this afternoon. Beer Advocate describes roggenbier as a traditional German style rye beer with a pronounced spiciness and a slightly sour flavor. I'm not getting much rye from the beer, and the color is sort of a hazy peach (as opposed to the coppery/red you'd expect in a rye), but there is a pleasant citrus flavor mingling with a mild sourness, accompanied by a fruity aroma and a yeasty, chewiness, all balanced out by a mildly bitter finish. Probably wouldn't win awards in the "rye" category, but a yummy brew, nonetheless.


Thursday, May 21, 2009

Ball Park Blues

Okay, so I know picking on ballparks and their hyper-inflated beer prices is totally overdone, but sometimes you just can't help yourself.

I read this article a few weeks ago in the NY Times, and although 90% of the text is devoted to a Pilsner tasting, the fourth paragraph caught my attention. Turns out that Citi Field, home of the NY Mets, serves beer from Brooklyn Brewery to its fans. How refreshing, I thought, to have access to delicious craft beer at a baseball game.

Fast forward to last Friday night, when Elena and I attended the Tigers vs. Athletics game in Detroit - thanks to my pal Andrew, a season ticket holder, who was fishing in Canada. Though I wanted one, I was determined NOT to be suckered into buying a beer. But, while standing in line for pizza, Elena convinced me to have one. So I chose the lesser of two evils and opted for a Labatt Blue; my other choice was Bud Light.

That was it. Seriously. In a state with as vibrant a beer scene as Michigan, it seemed damn near felonious that a fan's choices were so limited. I mean, the Detroit Beer Co., which brews a very solid lineup, is less than half a mile from Comerica Park!

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not so big a snob that I didn't enjoy sipping my beer while watching the game. After all, beer and baseball are God's gift to the working stiff. But, how much did I pay, you ask, for that epically mediocre lager? $8.25...

If you live near a stadium that serves beer worth bragging about, do tell.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Speaking of Toronto...

If you should someday find yourself in search of good food and good beer in that glorious city, be sure to check out the Mill Street Brewpub in the Distillery District. This is where Mrs. Alewise and I celebrated Valentine's Day 2009 (it's a pretty special woman who considers pubfare and pints a romantic dinner) and we found the food, the brew, and the staff to be top notch. It's been too long, and I took no notes, so I won't be able to recall the finer details of what we drank, but I would heartily recommend picking up a six-pack (or ordering a pint) of any of the three we tried: the IPA and Betelgeuse (a Trippel) for me; a Fruit Beer (Raspberry Ale) for Elena.

Best part of the evening for me was my experience in the gift shop. When I visit brewpubs or microbreweries (and, of course, if I like their beer), I try to get a sticker for my brew bucket.
Mill Street did not carry any, but when I explained to the manager why I wanted one, she spent ten minutes rummaging in drawers and cabinets beneath the register, confident that she had one from years ago. Several times, I told her not to worry about it, that I appreciated her effort, that it would be okay. She continued undeterred, and finally found one. Then she refused to let me pay for it. I thought this was unacceptable, so I stuck five dollars in the tip jar on the counter, at which point she insisted that I also take a bottle opener. Needless to say, I was impressed. And grateful. And likely to give them a shout out months later in the blog I had no idea at the time that I'd be writing...


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Need a laugh? Grab this book...

Elena and I spent Valentine's weekend in Toronto, and while shopping in the Kensington Market, we stumbled across the Good Egg, a fantastic little shop devoted to food and those who love food (and who doesn't?). For those who've never been to Toronto or visited the Kensington Market, I would strongly encourage you to do both - having done so myself six times...

Anyway, we spent a good two hours in this shop, and I probably spent all but five minutes of those two hours with my nose deep in a book called The Modern Drunkard by Frank Kelly Rich - which I subsequently bought and now cherish (not really, but it is hilarious). This gem of a book is an irreverent and full-throated response to the largely unanswered question as to what happens after you've consulted that bar guide, mixed those cocktails, and sent them down the hatch. Its pages are dedicated to the art of being drunk, and catalog all the wonderful shenanigans people have pulled or should pull, at some point in their life, while drinking...heavily.

My favorite section in the book is titled 40 Things every Drunkard Should Do: Checkpoints on the road to excess.

An excerpt from this section's intro reads: "Fortunately, imbibers have historically been immune to popular opinion, hence this list. If you manage all forty before you take a bar stool at St. Gabriel's Pearly Gate Lounge, you may feel secure in the fact that you've lived a rich and full life, even if only the boys and girls down at happy hour think so. And when you do belly up to the big open bar in the sky and the bartender asks, What sort of life did you lead?, you can look him right in the eye and say, Gabe, baby, I'm glad this is eternity, because I've got a helluva lot of stories to tell."

Here are a few of the more colorful and memorable entries on the list...

6. Get drunk on the grave of your hero. Wait until the cemetery closes for the evening, then slip over the fence with a bottle of something strong. Prop your back against the gravestone and tell your hero how much he inspired you, how much he changed your life. Revel in the fact that your inspiration is only six feet of hard-packed earth away. It'll be the greatest one-sided conversation you'll ever have. Then pass out. Let the groundskeeper be your alarm clock.

8. Embark on an impromptu road trip. Out of the blue, propose a trip to Las Vegas, London, Jack Kerouac's grave, or, for the love of God, the Two-Headed Cattle Museum. It doesn't really matter where; the joy is in the journey. There's nothing like a burst of irresponsible freedom to shake up your worldview. It will be an adventure you'll never forget or tire of talking about.

17. Fight a good fight. Samual Johnson said, Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier, or not having been at sea, and those who go to their graves without ever getting into a fistfight undoubtedly feel the same way. How many times have you gone home thinking, Damn I should have clocked that jerk. Next time, do it. Swing first, swing hard, and make sure you're in the right. You may not win, but at least you were in there swinging.

28. Send a friend a bottle of good liquor. Apropos of nothing and don't tell him it's coming. Attach a card reading: Tonight the drinks are on me. He will never forget it.

39. Make your own beer, wine, or moonshine. It's akin to spinning gold from straw, except this gold gets you loaded. There are few finer feelings than getting drunk on alcohol you yourself coaxed from the most unassuming of ingredients, Do it once and you will forever feel secure in the knowledge that no matter what goes down in the future, you will drink.

Another great section is titled The 86 Rules of Boozing: There's more to it than tipping a glass and acting foolish.

And I quote...

5. Buying someone a drink is five times better than a handshake.

20. Drink one girly drink in public and you will forever be known as the guy who drinks girly drinks.

31. If you have been roommates with someone for more than six months, you may drink his beer, even if it's hidden, so long as you leave him one.

34. If you bring cheap beer to a party, you must drink at least two cans before you start drinking the imported beer in the fridge.

51. Never brood in a dance bar. Never dance in a dive bar.

69. If there is ever any confusion, the fuller beer is yours.

Good stuff, and I'd be curious to hear your additions to these lists...


Thursday, May 14, 2009

Bangers and Mash: My Beer Roots

Like many young men of my generation, my relationship with beer began at a tender age. During high school (and most of college), beer drinking was all about economy. A thirty pack of Strohs for $15.00? Perfect. A keg of The Beast for Friday in Cedar Village? Sounds good. Bud Lite, MGD, Rolling Rock (if I was feeling fancy). But those notions changed during my fourth (out of five) year at Michigan State, when I landed a spring semester internship in London, England. It was there, in village pubs older by centuries than the U.S., that I discovered there was more to beer than foam and hangovers.

David, the patriarch of the family I was living with (and a friend of a family friend), was old school. A plainclothes policeman with the London Underground who palpably disliked the French for their poor showing in WWII (and who inexplicably was a huge ABBA fan), David wanted me to leave England with an appreciation of the rich history of local English pubs.

We would wash down bangers and mash (that is Queen's English for sausage and potatoes) with a pint of cool (not cold) English bitter, and he would tell me how, traditionally, each village brewed ale that was unique to the contours of its geography, using local grains fermented by wild yeast, and consumed within walking distance of the source; a difficult concept to wrap your head around when you are used to roaming grocery store shelves lined with the same beer in store after store. He explained that hardworking Britons drank ales specific to a season - heavier, darker ales, like Porter, during colder months, and lighter ales, like Pale Ale, during warmer months. He explained that the silly looking cone shaped structures, visible all throughout the English countryside, were called oast houses.

I also had the opportunity to sneak off to Dublin and Amsterdam during my semester abroad and visit the Guinness an Heineken breweries. In the years since, I have toured a number of craft breweries (which are admittedly far less industrial and far more interesting), but seeing the process of beermaking in those beer "factories," from raw grain to the bottling line, was informative.

David was by no stretch an expert, but he helped me to see beer
in a different light. I began to think about the connection between the slender stalk of barley and the farmer who cultivated it from the land, the brewer who converted it into malt, and the denizen who quaffed it from his glass.

Since that trip, my relationship with beer has been transformed from one of convenience to one of respect. A grad school pal (thanks Eric) inspired me to begin homebrewing, and my wife, Elena, bought me a brew kit a from a great little shop in Willimantic, Connecticut called Zok's. Whenever I travel, I check to see if there are microbreweries en route, or brewpubs at my destination. I read brewing magazines (Zymurgy), brewing books (Papazian and Palmer), and brewing news (GLBC).

My goal is to use this space to detail my successes and failures in brewing, to share my random thoughts on things beer, and to connect with other like minded (or un-like minded) folks who are passionate about their brew.

NOTE: A foamy thanks to Señor Brew™, whose excellent blog, Noble Square Brewing, was the first brewing blog I followed, and who graciously pointed out my error (the first of many, I'm sure) in misremembering the actual use of oast houses. Does that make British David my Brian McNamee? As Señor points out in his comment below, oast houses are used to dry hops, not grain; and, sparging is a part of the brewing (not drying/kilning) process. Gracias Señor!