Friday, May 28, 2010

Going Extra Local - Cask Ale

Over at Beervana, Jeff has a really nice post on Ted Sobel, Oregon's Pied Piper of cask (or 'real') ale, trying to lead Oregon's craft beer lovers to a new frontier - but here the analogy ends for this frontier leads not to their doom but to a new and glorious part of Beervana.  Ted is the owner and brewer at Brewers Union Local 180 in far-off Oakridge, Oregon (pretty far even for the real Pied Piper to get followers to come) and he is the states only cask-only brewer.

Here is Jeff:

There are a lot of ways to sell beer in this state, but the easiest is to make them big and hoppy. It helps if you're conveniently located in East Portland--though Eugene seems like a pretty good location, too. A sure-fire business model includes a pub/taproom and capacity to distribute 22-ounce bottles and/or kegs to alehouses around the Northwest. Do that and your road is lined with rose petals.

Ted Sobel ... has not chosen the easy way. He makes small beers with low levels of hops. His pub is three hours from Portland, in Oakridge. He brews real ale, sold exclusively by firkin, and only really trusts one other pub to handle his beer. To reach the Portland market, he must load the casks into the back of his station wagon and drive them up himself. For his trouble, he earns less per firkin than he would if he sold the beer in his own pub. In the term of art, Ted has not yet figured out how to "monetize" his vision in the way other pubs have. His road is thorny, cold, and lonely.

For those Portlanders and Oregonians who are into fresh, natural and local, cask ale would seem to be a no-brainer. Cask is all of those things and nothing is more local and ephemeral than a locally brewed and prepared cask. In only a few days it will spoil after it is tapped, no artifical gases are injected into it - all carbonation is naturally occurring (and as I write this I am fearful of making a error that Ted will surely correct for such is the state of cask knowledge that even someone such as I, a huge cask enthusiast, only has rudimentary knowledge of the art).  The absence of injected carbon dioxide tends to reveal flavors that are hidden by the gas and, to my mind you get a fuller, richer experience of the ingredients and flavors that mingle on your tongue.  Which is also why mild beers are perfect for cask, flavors that CO2 washes out will remain on cask.  Mild beers are also perfect for an evening of socializing - quaffable, enjoyable and easy on the brain.

But because of the difficulty of preparing, serving and keeping cask ales, until the appreciation for the product causes a real demand shift it is hard to make them profitable.  Which is why I am here to tell you that if you missed the meet-the-brewer event at the Green Dragon last night, you have another rare chance to meet Ted and taste his beer served the way it is supposed to be served - from a fresh cask - tonight at Belmont Station.  The cask gets tapped at 3.  I shall be making a mad dash to meet Jeff there after my last meeting in Corvallis and hoping that y'all have to wait until later so there is some left for me.  [If you see me, say 'hi.']  It is only through repeated exposure that cask - just as craft beer itself - will catch on and create its own market.

The Hopopotamus™ Update: It has been racked into bottles and will be ready in a week or so, but the occasional zwickel has left me confident that it is, and I am sure all tasters will agree, The Best Beer Ever Brewed™.  In case you were wondering...

Also, my wee hop plant is not so wee anymore, and have been convinced by the beer savant to add about 6 more feet to my trellis support.  It has about 15 feet to grow up now.

Now all we need is some sunny weather and I can get to work perfecting my Northwest Best Bitter.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Hopopotamus™ Lives!

I am very pleased with my new all-outdoor brewing set-up, and was so determined to brew outdoors that The Hopopotamus™was delayed by the extended wet and cold weather we have had over the last few weeks.  But last Friday the weather cleared, I wrapped up all the tasks I had to do early, and set to brewing.

After a trip to Steinbart's, where many hops were purchased, I swung by and picked up The Beerax for moral and spiritual guidance and then set up my al-fresco brewhouse on my patio.  My new propane burner was fantastic and in no time at all I was ready to mash.  So mash I did.  Here is a picture of the grain sack early on in the mash.


Then it was time for the powdered malt extract andhere the trouble began.  After stirring the malt extract a little I noticed my floating thermometer was trying to float horizontally. I figured at fist this was due to malt extract - pretty gooey stuff before it dissolves - sticking to it.  But when I pulled it out I discovered, to my horror, that it had shattered at the bottom leaving behind glass and weighting pellets of unknown provenance. [In the picture you can see the offending thermometer] The thermometer itself which rests inside the glass container, was intact (and thus no mercury contamination - if there is any in these things anymore), so there was a few moments when I pondered continuing on and straining out the debris.  After all, the little weighting pellets couldn't be lead could they?  No one would be the wiser, I thought, and what is a little shard of glass in a beer anyway but a fun amusement?  

Fortunately, seeing my moment of weakness, Jeff looked at me in the eye and said "I 'aint drinking your beer man..."  Of course he was right and so a mad dash to Steinbart's ensued - in rush hour, argh! - to procure more grain and malt extract.  And in this cautionary tale lies yet another reason homebrewing is not a money saver - this will end up being an expensive beer, economies of scale indeed.  

So after a refreshing jaunt through Portland traffic, back we arrived and re-started the entire process with a new thermometer.  Once the grain bill was fully infused the fun began.  I, being the Beer-Whisperer, had an unconventional sense that I should add the low alpha acid hops early, creating a base of gentle bitterness that would then be layered upon with pungent, high AA, hops later in the boil.  Jeff, however, started getting skittish about the result being under-hopped and was strangely unimpressed by my Beer-Whisperer's certainty that my instinct was True and Good.  

This unsettled me.  Jeff is, after all, the Beer-Savant (or the Rain Man of beer as I like to call him) and my conviction started to wane, so I capitulated.  [Later Jeff would say that he was merely posing the question and not making a suggestion - so now I call him the passive-aggressive Rain Man of beer] I thus threw in an ounce of the ultra-high AA Simcoe hops and switched the order of the moderate AA Cascades and the lower Crystals.  More Simcoe and Amarillo were added late and in the picture below you can see the wonderful, glorious oil-slick of hop resin as well as the remaining Amarillo waiting in the carboy as my dry-hops.  

Maybe Jeff was right, thought I, as the final product in the carboy whispered to me that it was good.  I have had a bit of a under-fermentation problem recently, so I pitched two packs of Wyeast's American Ale II yeast, which reputedly is the Anchor Ale yeast.  Never used it before but it, of course, whispered to me that it was the One.

And so The Hopopotamus™sits in my basement fermenting away getting ready to make its world premier in another few weeks.

Over at the Beeronomics blog (which is simply a collection of all my Beeronomics posts from this blog) A commentator noted that perhaps my assertion that The Hopopotamus™name was a registered trademark was suspect as Roots has already had a beer of that name.  I had not known of (or more likely not remembered) the Root's brew, but in any event Craig spelled it Hoppopotamus whereas I go for the more parsimonious use of the p.  Regardless the registered trademark symbol was entirely a joke, but lest the feds get whiff of The Hopopotaumus™- and surely they will what with all the hops - I have switched to the TM symbol.  So there.

And I did rip-off the name, but not from Craig Nicholls, rather I stole it from The Flight of the Conchords.  Enjoy:

Growing Your Own - the Hop Update

Well, I never claimed to have a green thumb...  My initial rhizome didn't seem to want to emerge from the earth and greet the sun, so I had to declare a failure to thrive and make an emergency dash to Portland Nursery to get a new Cascade hop plant (which apparently is the hop of choice as the pickings were slim among Cascades, but there were ample choices of very mature hops of different varieties).  Now, after taking quite a bit more care with the planting, giving it lots of fresh soil and compost, I am happy to report that my new Cascade hop is thriving albeit still a wee thing (picture above - now about a week old, so it has grown probably 2-3" since then).  My cherry tree also looks to be gearing up for a banner year so beers with home grown ingredients are in the offing.

One side benefit to having to dash off to Portland Nursery is that I pass right by Belmont Station - a misnomer now that it is on Stark, but no matter - and, well, when in the neighborhood one must stop in mustn't one?  Since spring was in the air and hops were on the mind, I picked up a selection of IPAs that are hard to find in my local stores:

Oakshire Watershed IPA - A lovely hop aroma, amber color and medium body. A bit aggressively bitter, but another of the excellent NW IPAs out there for us hop heads.

Hair of the Dog Blue Dot - As a seasonal, it is only around part of the year, so now is the time to track this ├╝ber-classic down.  Every time I try this after a long absence I am absolutely floored by it.  It is aggressively hopped but has a wonderful creamy body that balances the bitter hops.  It is much lighter than the average NW IPA and I suspect that a dose of wheat gives it its creamy body.   The hops and malt do a dance on your tongue and the floral aroma sings to your nose - rhapsodic.

Rogue Brutal Bitter - My favorite Rogue beer which apparently is being renamed Rogue Brutal IPA.  It is really not a bitter in the british sense as it has more IPA characteristics, but it is not especially bitter so I have always thought that the name did it a disservice.  As I can find about 10 other Rogue beers locally but not this one, I suspect that I am right about the name scaring people off.  Of the four beers here, this surely is the one a non-hop head would be the most likely to love.  The Crystal hops are so clean and bright on the palate it amazes me that they are not used more (at least to my knowledge). I tried to clone this beer with a few twists and it came off pretty well and now Crystals are among my favorite hops to brew with.

Bear Republic Racer 5 - This was the true revelation.  I had not had it before and I have missed out.  It is bottle conditioned (like Bridgport's IPA) which allows the flavors to shine and oh what flavor!  It is aggressively hopped by not aggressively bitter, has a wonderful aroma, floral and citrusy, a lovely amber color and is lightly carbonated thanks to the bottle conditioning. It has vaulted into the top shelf of my favorite IPAs - which includes those listed here as well as Ninkasi, HotD, and Boundary Bay, among a few others.  

I highly recommend all four.

Tomorrow I shall update the latest news on the eagerly anticipated arrival of The Hopopotamus™