Monday, June 10, 2013

The Horrors of Homebrewing

Glass or Plastic?

I love homebrewing, and like many homebrewers, my "hobby" often borders on "obsession." When my schedule allows it, it is not uncommon for me to brew as often as once or twice a week, and I total about 180 gallons a year. If you think that sounds like a lot, on the spectrum of homebrew enthusiasts, it really isn't: I have a friend who brews upwards of 500 gallons a year.

As with any culinary adventure, some batches are phenomenal experiences and yield the most amazing beer. Others result in such a failed experiment that I just dump it all down the drain. And yet others are such an awful experience that it makes me question why I do this at all…

I have had three notable misadventures. Two of them (one involving a bottle miscue and the other the keg from hell) I will save for a later post. My most recent debacle, though, I feel is worth mentioning because it addresses an issue that every homebrewer faces: to ferment in glass or plastic.

I hate plastic. I don't use plastic for anything, and I use glass for food storage and cooking as often as possible. Thus, when I began homebrewing three years ago, I had every intention of buying a glass carboy.

At the time, however, all of the sales staff at Modern Homebrew in Cambridge, MA strongly dissuaded me from buying glass, encouraging me instead to invest in plastic buckets and plastic "Better Bottle" carboys. They reasoned that plastic was not only less expensive, but also less apt to break or crack.

Knowing absolutely nothing at the time, I heeded their advice and began doing my brewing exclusively in plastic. But I always felt weird about it: I really wanted to ferment in glass.

About a year ago, a friend lent me his glass carboy, and I started to use this glass carboy more and more often. If I had the glass available, I would use it. Besides, regardless of how well I cleaned them, my plastic buckets always smelled like the previous batch's hops. Glass, on the other hand, never held onto residual odors. (I should mention: I never found any flavor differences in the finished beer fermented in plastic versus beer fermented in glass.)

Then it happened.

I had had a long night at work, getting home around 12:30am. As I am brushing my teeth, I start smelling beer. This was curious to me, as I had no open bottles and hadn't drunk any beer at my home for the last few days.

I did, however, have three beers fermenting: my Maple Tripel and Patersbier were both in my brew fridge (the former in a plastic bucket, the later in a one gallon glass jug), and a DIPA dry hopping at room temp in my dining room in a glass carboy.

I stepped out of the bathroom and looked at the DIPA: I had wrapped the carboy in a towel to prevent light penetration, and that towel was soaked with beer.

At this point, the beer had already been dry hopping for about a week. But there was no mistaking what I was seeing: the carboy had a crack.

As there wasn't a pool or puddle of beer on the floor, I assumed it must be a small crack somewhere in the carboy that, over the past week, had slowly been leaking beer. I lifted up the towel to see if I could find the crack. The carboy looked OK, though it was clear I had lost about a half gallon of beer.

I decided to take the towel completely off (it was fastened with safety pins) to get a better look, and as I did so, my knee lightly bumped the side of the carboy. What happened next seemed to play out in a dreadful slow motion…

The base of the carboy stayed exactly where it was, but the entire top of the carboy slid off to one side, and immediately I had a beer tsunami: five gallons of beer gushing out of the carboy onto my floor (and all over my feet and slippers!)

Panicked, I watched all the beer and fresh Newport hop flowers flow across my floor, toothbrush hanging out of my mouth. I should add that I rent an older house, and the floor is slanted, so that all the beer wound up flowing towards the wall underneath all the furniture of my office space (power cords!!!)

I am completely bamboozled as to how this ever happened, but basically, it looked as though someone had taken an industrial glass cutter and cut off the entire base of the carboy. The only thing I can surmise is that it must have been handled too roughly in the recent past, and that there was a hairline crack in the carboy when I racked the beer. Perhaps the pressure of five gallons of liquid was too much for it and it expanded. I don't know. It's all rather odd to me.

The pain of losing this beer was immense. Yes, it was two hours of cleanup and my house reeked of stale beer for about a week. But I had invested so much energy into this beer: I really had high hopes for it. And, it was brewed with all Newport hops from Rhode Island. I suppose the only nice things about this was that for the first thirty minutes after the spill, the entire house smelled like a pine forest. Unfortunately, the entire house smelled like a dirty dive bar for the next ten days!

I did take away one valuable lesson, though: I am going to invest in more Better Bottle plastic carboys.



Tripel Threat

In Search of the Best Belgian Tripel

The moment Chimay released their "Spéciale," a new special-release beer from the famed Trappist Brewery, I knew I had to try it. Not only do I love all of their offerings, but I am so fascinated by Trappist brewing traditions, that anytime one of these fabled monasteries release a new recipe, I need to try it. (And any longtime readers will know that I am a sucker for good marketing!)

Then I saw the price tag: $26.99. Ouch. My taste would have to wait.

Several other friends were lamenting over the same thing: we all wanted to try this beer, but none of us could justify shelling out nearly $30 for a single bottle of beer.

Naturally, we pooled together and bought the bottle to share. But now we needed to know: what was the best tripel for the dollar?

We chose nine beers, the selection of which was simply determined by what was easiest to find at our local liquor store. Considering the basis of this comparison was what beer we could theoretically have as a "house table tripel," we didn't want anything too esoteric or difficult to find. (The exception, of course, being the Chimay Spéciale which was a limited release beer.)

Without further ado, here's what we found:

Chimay Spéciale (26.99/22oz) $1.23/oz

Bottled 6/12. A spicy nose with cloves, lots of forward hops, and hard butterscotch candy. Big and sweet in the mouth, biscuity with hints of cinnamon and even a little pine. Tremendously boozy and hot, we all agreed it would probably do best with some age and time. (10% abv)



Chimay Cinq Cents (14.99/22oz) 68¢/oz

Bottled 2012. Half the price, but not half the quality. Much darker in color with a big clove bouquet. Fairly dry and hoppy, with flavors of dry biscuit, lemon grass, and a little tropical fruit. (8% abv)

Westmalle Tripel (5.99/33cl) 54¢/oz

An amazing floral nose with flavors of honey, scones, graham cracker, and butterscotch. Truly a wonderful beer from start to finish. (9.5% abv)


Allagash Tripel (11.99/4pk) 27¢/oz

A surprisingly earthy nose with hints of postage stamp, especially when compared to the Trappists. Sweet but not syrupy, it has a remarkably light body. Little dryness and almost no hop presence with the cloves lightly in the background, there is also the requisite biscuit flavor we've come to expect. Massively drinkable with no hint of the alcohol: this beer goes down easily. (9% abv)


Unibroue La Fin du Monde (11.99/4pk) 27¢/oz

A spicy honey-laced aroma that reminds me of hard water (seems high in Magnesium). Spicy in the mouth as well: almost peppery with a lot of clove and hints of vanilla and oak. Not overly dry nor overly sweet, this is a perfectly balanced beer. (9% abv)


Boulevard Long Strange Tripel (11.79/4pk) 25¢/oz

A bit of a farmhouse funk in the nose, the beer begins rather dry and finishes fairly sweet. Little clove, but there is a spicy pepper flavor that mixes with candied and dried bananas. (9.2% abv)

Weyerbacher Merry Monk (13.99/6pk) 21¢/oz

Aromas of bubblegum and Laffy Taffy. Overly sweet, there is a distinctly candy/carnival flavor to the beer: bubblegum, cotton candy, and carmel corn. (9.3% abv)


Avery Nineteen (9.99/22oz) 45¢/oz

Bottled April 2012. Sweet and super floral with honey, lavender, and rosewater flavors. A lovely beer, but almost nothing like what I've come to expect in a triple. (8.2% abv)

Tripel Karmaliet (4.99/33cl) 45¢/oz

Spicy and effervescent. Flavors of tangerine, cinnamon, and cloves. It surprised me how similar it was to the Boulevard. (8.4% abv)





Our Verdict:

The best overall tripel was a unanimous decision: Chimay Spéciale is a good beer, but not worth the money. If money is no issue, spring for the Westmalle Tripel instead. It's a classic for good reason.

Despite our unanimous love of Westmalle Tripel, we differed on which beer was the best value for the dollar. My personal favorite was La Fin du Monde: I could drink it all day, and it's a beer I regularly return to. The other taster, however, opted for Allagash Tripel. At the same price per ounce, you can't go wrong with either.

There's many more tripels out there to try. Do you have a favorite? Let us know!

Monday, June 3, 2013

The Maple Truth

Brewing With Maple Sap

While I was in Berlin over the summer, I was first introduced to the idea of a beer made entirely from maple sap. On one of my visits to the Berlin Bier Shop, store owner Rainer Wallisser pointed to a bottle of beer he had just gotten from a Russian brewer. With a sly smile, he said: "There's no water in that beer." Enjoying my confusion, he explained how the beer was brewed with only maple sap in place of water. Though I didn't get to taste the beer, I was immediately fascinated with the concept and pledged to brew one of my own.

I wasn't entirely sure how I would ever procure the necessary quantities  of sap required to make an entire beer, but this past Spring, I discovered that a friend of mine makes maple syrup every year from his roughly fifty trees in Newton, Massachusetts. I asked him on a whim how much he would charge for roughly ten gallons of maple sap. "Charge?" he scoffed. "I'll just give it to you!" Turns out his trees were having a banner year, yielding as much as 164 gallons within the first week.

I began formulating a recipe, but was rather surprised to see just how little information was available. Despite living in a region full of maple trees, there was surprisingly local president (I have since found a couple other brewers who have done the same.) Even the internet was little help; plenty of brewers using maple syrup, but essentially none using maple sap. By far the most helpful article was the 1988 winter issue of Zymurgy. The author, Morgan Wright, answered several questions, though by brewday, I still had far more that remained unanswered.

Recipe Formulation

Carbonated Maple Sap
Lawson's Finest Liquids, the Vermont nano brewery of great fame, has an award winning Maple Tripple (sic) beer as well as a "hearty Vermont Ale" called "Maple Nipple." Both are brewed with Maple Syrup (not sap), yet the Maple Tripple (which I had tasted at the American Craft Beer Festival) was the first thing that came to mind when I began brainstorming recipe possibilities. Though I don't know the details of his recipes (he tends to be rather secretive), I do know that he uses a lot of Vermont maple syrup.

By itself, maple sap is a pretty subtle beverage. In the past, I have enjoyed the carbonated maple sap Vermont Sweetwater Bottling Company, but I found the sap from my friend's trees vastly different. This sap was silky and smooth on the tongue with a slight woodsy flavor. Any maple flavor was tremendously faint.
12 Gallons of Sap

I knew, therefore, that I wanted to brew a pale beer, and though I personally find the Lawson's Maple Tripple a little too sweet for my own tastes, I love the concept of pairing faint maple and woody flavors with that of a Belgian yeast strain. I had contemplated a Maple Porter, but I felt that the dark malts would mask the subtle maple flavors of the sap, and I wanted to let those flavors stand for themselves. Thus it was decided: a Maple Tripel it would be.

I was actually quite lucky: my friend gave me more sap than I had expected, giving me upwards of 12 gallons. This meant that I would have enough sap to do a five gallon Tripel and a one gallon second runnings Belgian Pale (a Patersbier).

Deciding to brew a Tripel meant choosing a yeast strain. I have brewed many Belgian-inspired beers, and my favorite strain with which to work is the Chimay strain: WLP 500 or WYeast 1214. I ordinarily opt for the WYeast offering, but my local homebrew store was understocked in 1214. Because of the spontaneous nature of my brew day (I was given the sap just days before, and I didn't want it to sit any longer than necessary), I was unable to do a yeast starter and thus had to be totally reliant on the store to have enough packets of either yeast. The store had two packs of WYeast 1214, and three of WLP500. I bought them all, deciding to pitch the 1214 in the Patersbier, and the WLP500 in the Tripel.

Formulating the grain bill was a little challenging, for I had no idea how much sugar to expect from the sap and how that would react with my wort. Morgan Wright suggests that sap contains 1 1/4 pounds of sap per six gallons. This seemed like a good ballpark from which to work, and I built the recipe with that in mind.
5 gallons

72% Belgian Pils
8% US 2-Row
8% Cara-Pils
4% Weyerman Abbey Malt

1oz Tettnang (60 minutes)
1oz Tettnang (30 minutes)

White Labs 500

I decided upon a two hour boil, in hopes of concentrating the maple flavor and caramelizing some of the sugars.

The Patersbier was hopped 1/2 oz of Sterling at 60.

The pre-boil gravity reading was for the Tripel and Patersbier was 15.2° and 5° brix respectively.

Water Chemistry

I generally stay away from water chemistry. I live in Boston, and we have a good water supply. Though some brewers would alter their water to accommodate a German pilsener or a Belgian Quad, I opt to keep mine the same. That way, it gives all Churchyard Beers a certain character that is unique to this region.

But now that I wasn't using Boston water, I naturally wondered how the water chemistry of sap would effect the finished beer. I hypothesized that the different minerals in sap might actually contribute more to the finished flavor profile than the presence of maple (a hypothesis I have since confirmed).

In his Zymurgy article, Morgan Wright supplied the a rough estimate of the mineral content in sap. And though I assume that the mineral content varies from region to region depending upon the soil, I am also assuming that his estimation is at least in the same ballpark as other maple trees.

Because I was doing a Belgian-style beer – and using a Chimay strain – it was interesting to compare this profile with those of those of the Trappist breweries. Below is a chart comparison:
Westmalle and Chimay readings are taken from "Brew Like a Monk" by Stan Hieronymus

It was interesting for me to discover just how different the water profile of Boston water is: because it is very soft water, most of the minerals found in other water supplies are present in only very small amounts. However, because every measurement in the Maple Sap was fairly similar to one of the Trappist breweries (with the exception of Chloride), I decided to forgo any alteration of the water profile, aiming to keep the beer as pure as Newton's sap.




I fermented both beers at 72°, allowing yeast to naturally ramp up the temps over time to roughly 80°. The Patersbier was fermented for two weeks and then kegged with a PSI of 8. The full beer sat in primary for four weeks, then kegged & bottled.

The Patersbier


With only one gallon of Patersbier (named "Newton") in my keg, I was able to drink a fully carbed beer within two days of kegging. The beer was a light golden color with absolutely no head retention. There were some small black flakes that settled on the bottom of the glass, but they contributed no off flavors or aromas. I am not entirely sure what these are, though I assume they must be a byproduct of having used sap.

The beer itself was everything I look for in a Patersbier, and I couldn't have been happier: easy drinking but with plenty of character and flavor. Super dry with a faint woodiness, it was crisp with just a hint of spicy clove in the back. And while I certainly wouldn't call the beer "hoppy," there was a long lingering bitterness that suggested far more hops than were actually present. (A friend felt the beer had a certain Lager character.) The dryness was likely a combination of the sugars in the maple sap as well as the Chimay yeast which usually finishes quite dry.

There was absolutely no discernible maple flavor to the Patersbier. Blindfolded, I wager no taster would ever guess it was brewed with sap as opposed to water. Even the woody flavor I mentioned was so subtle it really could have been a byproduct of the mineral profile as much as the fact that it came from a tree. While I expected to find little maple flavor, I was surprised just how little there actually was (and by "little," I really mean "none!")

This Patersbier was easily one of the best beers I had ever brewed, and I was really curious to see how it would compare to the full version. Because I wanted to age some of the bottles and see how the flavors developed over time, I decided to keg one gallon, bottle three gallons, and pitch brett into one gallon.

Nature's Kiss


The full version of the Maple Tripel (named "Nature's Kiss") couldn't have been more different from the Patersbier. With an FG of 1.012, it clocked in at 9.1% abv. As one might expect with such a high alcohol level, the beer had a residual sweetness to it that immediately set it apart from the dryness of Newton. Despite the sweetness, there wasn't much booziness. A much darker beer, it had a dark caramel orange color with more of the black sediment present in Newton. The beer had a tremendous banana aroma and flavor, and was arguably one of the most banana-y triples I've ever tasted.

This huge banana character really gave me quite a pause, and I realized that I had inadvertently
created another experiment: I had now learned just how different White Labs is from WYeast. Both yeasts were held at the same temperature and had the same grain bill. Of course, there were other variables, not the least of which was massively different OG's, but the results of these two beers gives me a reasonable basis for the hypothesis that the WYeast Chimay strain ferments out much drier than its White Labs counterpart (a characteristic I like in a beer.)

As I continued to work my way through my kegged beer, I couldn't get past the banana character. I experimented one evening with adding 1/2 tsp of Woodford Reserve Bourbon to my glass, and I was tremendously impressed with the result. The bourbon helped to smooth out the beer, and the vanilla notes of the bourbon complemented the banana notes of the beer so well, it was truly a match made in heaven! (I continued to add bourbon to every remaining glass!)

Roughly a month after finishing my keg, I cracked open my first bottle (which I had primed with maple syrup from the same trees). The beer had a lovely head and was significantly better balanced than it was in the keg. I intend to cellar most of the bottles for about a year and see how they respond to some age.


In the end, the two beers were really so tremendously different from each other, that it was hard to believe they were basically the same recipe. But despite the differences, there was one characteristic the two beers had in common: no discernible maple flavor. All maple sap, two different beers, no maple flavor. Here is what I can take away from my maple sap brewing experiment:

• Maple Sap in no way impedes the brewing process. The pH levels are similar enough to tap water that all the proper conversions happen during the mash. If brewing with sap, the sap can sit for as long as five days in a refrigerator with no ill effects (cloudiness does not effect flavor).

• Maple Sap imparts no maple flavor when used in the quantities required to make beer. Considering that it takes 40 gallons of maple sap to produce one gallon of maple syrup, this shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise.

• If more maple flavor is desired, I recommend using maple syrup or reducing the sap in a pre-mash boil.

• Despite the lack of maple flavor, maple sap has a very unique mineral content that does effect flavor. Personally, I find this to be a pleasing flavor profile, and I do not think any further alteration of the water chemistry to be necessary.

One further thing to consider: The sap I used for these beers was early-season sap. As the season progresses, the sap becomes much thicker with more highly concentrated sugars. This is why "Grade B" syrup (usually made in April) is much darker and has more intense maple flavor than it's younger cousins "Grade A" or "Amber." If one were to brew with sap from a later in the season, the maple flavor would likely become more present.

In the end, I found this to be tremendously fun experiment, and one I may do again – after all, that Patersbier was one of the best things to ever come out of Churchyard Brewery. But I feel I can safely conclude that brewing with maple sap doesn't really produce radically different results than brewing with water. If maple flavor is what is sought, it really makes more sense to use maple syrup in addition.

I would be really interested to hear other people's experiences. If anyone has brewed with sap, please share!