Monday, November 23, 2009

November Brewing and Porters vs. Stouts

This month has been a busy one for brewing. Six 5-gallon batches brewed, 4 of them bottled, and 2 will be kegged. The 4 are the aforementioned single hop pale ales. They seem to have come out pretty well. We'll see once they are carbonated and chilled. My favorite so far (warm and flat at bottling time) is the Crystal hopped pale ale.

I hadn't really planned on brewing more than those four, but that is mainly because I hadn't considered how quickly my kegs would run out. Two nights of the guys coming over to hang out, one of those nights with hot chicken, and the kegs get pretty low. My special bitter was exhausted within 3 weeks. The cappuccino stout is still pouring, but only because I've been milking it (get it?). So anyway, my two new batches are another batch of special bitter and then a vanilla stout to replace the cappuccino stout.

These brews had problems. And the problems were mostly out of my own control. When I purchased the malts from my local homebrew store, the mill was set too coarse, so the malts didn't get crushed enough. This effected the beers to the effect of losing about 25% of my expected initial gravity. The special bitter has been a very consistent beer for me to brew, so the cause of the difference was obvious to me; especially after analyzing the grains further. Some of the grains weren't crushed at all. Disappointing. The vanilla stout was supposed to be a little stronger than I would usually brew, but ended up being about normal due to the grain problem. (For anyone local who has concern, I did contact the homebrew store, and upon inspection they found their mill settings to be off. They have since fixed it.) As disappointing as this is, I will still have good beer to drink. But I also have more resolve to control even more of the steps of the beer making process. So there may be a grain mill in my future.

Having brewed a vanilla stout, some people who were recipients of last year's (over-carbonated) vanilla porter may be asking why I call this one a stout instead of a porter. The difference between porters and stouts has long been discussed and argued. Some sources I have read lately point to times, maybe 40 years ago, when there were clear-cut differences. These days, however, it is mostly up to the individual brewer since strength, color, sweetness, IBU's, etc. for both porters and stouts are all over the charts. So with that, I feel like it is my duty, as a (home)brewer who makes both types of beer, to clarify the difference to me.

I try to make my stouts dryer (except for the sweet stouts (milt stout, cappuccino stout, etc.)) and more one-dimensionally strong and dark then the porters. My stouts will often use a lot of the darkest malts (black patent, etc.) to cause the dark colors and flavors and should usually leave the mouth dryer, with less of an aftertaste, because they have less going on. My porters, on the other hand, typically have a broader spectrum of flavors such that, while they may be just as dark, there is typically more complexity and lingering flavors on the palate. This is achieved in the porter by using more variety of varying degree dark malts in the grain bill. The outcome if still a very dark beer (and sometimes maybe darker?) but with more levels of dark taste.

I hope that is clear enough. Enjoy your beers.


Monday, November 2, 2009

New Belgium Brewery (A curiosity piece)

New Belgium brewery has been on my mind lately; mainly due to stuff I have read about them lately. I am not sure i have much of a conclusion for my thoughts, but I will proceed anyway. Maybe writing out my thoughts will help me....

First, I will describe my personal history with New Belgium beers. I say personal history because I have been drinking their beers since I was old enough to buy beer back in 1997, living in Texas. I always really liked their beers; especially their lesser known Sunshine Wheat, Trippel, and some others that we don't quite have out here in Tennessee yet. Even their Fat Tire had a strong appeal beyond just the fact that there was a bike on the label (I was working at a bike shop at the time - their's was the preferred of the "bike associated" beers back in the day.) Fast forward about 6 years and I moved to Tennessee, where I have been since. New Belgium Beers have only recently been available here, and really just 3 standard brews and a seasonal are available. And they have stormed onto the scene. Neon cruiser bikes are everywhere (even bike shops), there are frequent specials on New Belgium Beers, and they have quickly infiltrated about everywhere that serves beer. I sort of think this is a good thing. Only that where my friends and I used to bring back cases of New Belgium beers from trips and such, now I sometimes feel like I am settling for a Fat Tire when there are no other decent craft beers within easy access.

This summer, I visited the New Belgium brewery. It was no less than breathtaking. The culture is closely guarded and the facilities are second to none. They are very active in their community and they had many different beers to sample. Essentially, they have made their brewery a beer mecca and their beer one that is often celebrated. They have become America's "cool" brewery.

So two bits of information that I have read lately are interesting to me. The less interesting is that they are looking for a beer ranger in North Carolina. Maybe it has already happened, but they are on the verge of hitting the Atlantic (Just a year or so ago, they wouldn't even cross the Mississippi). The other bit of news is that the couple that founded New Belgium are getting divorced. My source for the info (a trade magazine) stated that the divorce should be final by the end of October (now). The wife part of the relationship is taking over the company and the husband is letting go of his involvement.

That is interesting to me in several ways. The biggest, though, is that the husband, Jeff Lebesch, is the person who started the brewing and came up with their flagship Fat Tire Beer. Now, I am not going to pretend to know how the company has progressed since then as far as management, direction, or whatnot. I also have no idea what has transpired to take things to this point (and I have no interest, especially on a personal level), but I do question the focus when the original beer master leaves a brewery. Jeff hasn't been in charge of production for a long time, that is known, but still.....

It is no secret that Kim Jordan, the other half of that founding couple and now CEO, knows the business as well as Jeff. But it is also obvious (from interviews, etc) that her focus is on the culture and the employees and such as much as on beer. I think these things are important, but it all has to start with the beer. And I do feel like some of the quality of the beer has been lost in the last year or two. Granted, I may be all wrong about Kim's role in that and maybe the quality is one of the things she is looking to improve upon in the coming months and years. But these things are clear: they are expanding very quickly, the beers they are expanding with first are not their best beers (in my opinion), and their ubiquity seems to be pushing them to the realm of Sam Adams, a beer that is everywhere but mostly just a fall back when there is nothing else worth drinking. To successfully distribute so widely, a beer has to cater more to the average beer drinker, which essentially precludes it from having any significant character....

So anyway... as I mentioned, I am speculating that Kim Jordan may not be the best for the brewery and that losing the originator of the beer may also remove the original passion from the brewery. I hope I am wrong. But my hope is waning. I am curious to see what happens in the coming years, and I am curious to see who will take the "coolness" crown if New Belgium loses it.