Sunday, February 17, 2013

Brewing a Classic American Craft Beer Style: American Amber Ale

While the American macro-brewing tradition traces its origin to German immigrants attempting to recreate German pale lagers with domestic American ingredients, the modern American Craft Brewing tradition more closely follows the British ale-brewing tradition. Starting with New Albion, Anchor, Sierra Nevada, Portland Brewing (now owned by a large beverage conglomerate and operated by Pyramid), Roaring Rock (now Triple Rock), and the Hopland Brewery (now Mendocino Brewing Company); the first post-prohibition US craft beer styles were American takes on English pale ale (bitter) and porter.

Early on there was no distinction between Pale and Amber ales. The term "amber ale" came about to account for the difficulty found by some brewing pioneers marketing a copper-colored "pale ale" to people who were used to straw-colored beer. The breweries all had different ways of marketing their products. While some breweries (notably Anchor and New Albion) simply called their Pale Ales "Ale" with the understanding that customers would associate an ale with "pale ale" due largely to the renown of Bass Ale from England (truly a hallmark of the style for over a century until some beverage conglomerate took over and reduced the brand to its current state). "Amber" slowly came to define those beers that were deep gold and copper-colored beers, while "Red" came to define those that were between copper and light brown. An today "red" and "amber" are basically synonymous (~SRM 10-16) with "pale" usually being reserved for light or deep golden-colored beers (~SRM 4-8).

By the time I came of legal age (2004) American craft brewers settled into the divergent "pale ale" styles of American Pale Ale, American Amber/Red Ale, and American Blond Ale (which developed to account for extra pale, light-bodied ales). They were all made from mostly domestic 2-row and they were all usually hopped with the "new" American cascade hop, that came to define and influence American brewing for the next two plus decades.

Today a blond is brewed with usually 100% 2-row, or occasionally pilsner malt; a dose of wheat perhaps; and possibly a pinch of very light crystal or carapils malt. Blonds are usually low-bodied and not very hoppy. They tend to be subtle, restrained beers - owing their heritage as much to the pale lagers of Milwaukee and St. Louis as they do to the pale ales of Britain.

Pale Ales came to be defined by a medium body, made from mostly 2-row and a touch of crystal malt, generously hopped with cascade hops (later other domestic hops became associated with the style, as well). Pale Ales today are frequently dry hopped, but this was not in common practice in the halcyon 1980's when the style really came into its own.

American Amber Ales (sometimes still called "red ales") are usually maltier versions of American Pale Ales. Probably the truest to its roots as an American take on English Bitters, the best Amber Ales are balanced, with a medium body, rich malt backbone, and the unique aroma and flavor of modern American hops. Most of the originals featured cascades again, but several are made with milder more "English" domestic hops like Willamette or Glacier. Others are made with bolder contemporary American hops like Citra or Simcoe. The malt bill is typically domestic 2-row and crystal malt, but many feature some Munich Malt (usually domestic 10L), a small amount of wheat malt, and/or some dark malt to help color the beer. The beers are usually bittered for balance, with low to moderate hop aroma and flavor. Dry hopping is optional, but somewhat rare in the style.

While most breweries either had a "pale ale" style of pale ale or an "amber ale" style of pale ale, today many breweries have both. As such, the styles have further diverged and Amber Ales have taken the short end of the stick. Often they are a brewery's "girl beer" for "BMC drinkers." They are often cheap on hops, overly sweet, and clearly not brewed to "wow" any beer geeks, but to produce something palatable for guests who do not generally like beer or hop bitterness. And that's fine. Not every beer needs to be something I find delicious. My problem is that, as American brewers have stepped beyond the British origins of American craft beer with the rise of American IPA, the decline of balanced American Amber Ales, and the near-death of American Brown Ale; bars and breweries rarely have a truly balanced ale on their taplist.

Homebrewing to the rescue. A well done American Amber Ale provides a gentle hop punch, a solid (but not overwhelming) malt backbone, and a body and ABV that lends itself to easy drinking. My take on American Amber Ale features the best attributes of American Pale Ale, Düsseldorf Altbier, and English Bitter. It is clean, fairly dry, medium-bodied, with a rich malt flavor and a distinct cascade hop aroma and flavor. A while back I "settled" on a malt bill of 8% British medium crystal malt, 1% carafa special II, 20-25% Munich malt, and a base of American pale malt (2-row or pale ale); this time I decided to try adding a touch of wheat malt to add a little more body and head retention without deepening the flavor or adding any sweetness. My recipe is designed to be mashed between 150º F and 152º F, aiming for a somewhat dry finished product. I bitter the beer with the smooth (but not too smooth) super-alpha Summit, which was not available to brewers in the 1980's. And I feature cascades in the beer as first wort hops, 5 min hops, and flameout hops (a hop schedule that is itself a curious mix of 1980's and 2010's). Since I am brewing 12 gallons, I initially intended to dry hop only half of the amber ale, for the sake of comparing the two.

The brewday was distracting, to say the least. My fiancée was having a bridal shower at the same time as I was brewing, and her dad and uncle were hanging out with me during most of the brewing process. Since I made a few bonehead mistakes before mashing in that wasted over an hour, I decided to cut my usual 90 minute boil down to 60 minutes, and I didn't really compensate for the reduced evaporation (I boiled a bit more aggressively than usual, but that didn't increase the evaporation rate by enough). As a result, I ended up with a little more slightly lower-gravity beer than planned. No problem, though, because the recipe was for a beer on the big end of the style.

I pitched some second-generation BRY-97 and fermented at 62F. After 3 days, the majority of fermentation appeared complete, so I pulled the fermenters out of the fermentation freezer and let them finish up at ambient for a couple days until the majority of the yeast appeared to floc out. At that point, I put one of the buckets back into the fermentation fridge at 34º F to help the yeast floc out of suspension to aid in both harvesting the yeast for an upcoming IPA and to clear the beer for future consumption.

I was planning on drinking one of these soon and dry hopping the second, but now I am considering just dry hopping both of them, as my taps are full and there isn't a free keg to put the beer in.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Brewing Like a Belgian

Oh Belgium. Just a decade ago their beers were all but unknown to the average American drinker. Today we all know Belgium to be the Holy Grail of boundary-pushing excellence in the European brewing art. So off-kilter is Belgium's brewing tradition, and so successful, that we Americans have established defined "style guidelines" to create their micro-nation-specific styles of beer. The grandest of which are the three great Trappist styles: Dubbel (double), Tripel (triple), and Belgian Dark Strong Ale (sometimes synonymous with Quadrupel or Quadruple).

My brew-buddy Patrick and I decided to brew a Tripel. Neither of us are particularly into super-boozy giant beers, so we kept it on the small side. Our intention was to brew a 1.075 beer. However, this was our first time with a new mill and a new mash tun, and we ended up with a slightly lower efficiency than expected, and that took us to an out-of-style (by BJCP standards, not Belgian standards) 1.073 Tripel.

For the recipe, we went with a pretty standard base of Pilsner Malt (Weyermann) and pinch of Munich. We also added a touch of acid malt just to ensure a good pH. We mashed low (149º F) and we took a rather large liberty by deciding to add some late hops - Glacier (English-style US hop) and a little Cascade (the classic American "C" hop) were chosen to add a judicious dose of hoppy aroma to our Tripel.

Designing Great Beer Part 3: Managing Fermentation

Some people wax philosophic about brewer's yeast. Something living turns your carefully-designed wort into beer. More than any other part of the process, the yeast can make your homebrew taste like fine craft beer or "homebrew." That is to say that 90% of homebrew off flavors I encounter come from improper fermentation management. What do I mean? Let's look at what yeast needs to give you the best beer possible.

Choose the Right Yeast Strain
Want to make a great Belgian Dubbel? Use a Belgian yeast recommended for Dubbels. There are several choices and Wyeast and White Labs both have pages on their website that will help you pick the correct strain for your recipe. This isn't brain surgery, though. Many strains are very versatile. Nearly every style of lager can be effectively brewed with Wyeast 2124 or White Labs 830. Any American-style ale can be made with the renowned "Chico" strain that almost every brand of brewer's yeast produces: White Labs 001, Wyeast 1056, Safale US-05, and Danstar BRY-97. And one "trick" that I have learned is to use a clean English Ale yeast like WLP002 to make American Ales - that's what Deschute's and Ninkasi use and they are both known for producing fine American-style ales.

Pitch Enough Healthy Yeast
Another common problem people run into is pitching too little yeast and/or pitching unhealthy yeast. Despite what Wyeast and White Labs will have you believe, one "smack pack" or vial of yeast is not the ideal amount to ferment 5-6 gallons of beer. Most of the time you should ideally pitch 2-3 times as much yeast. This doesn't mean you need to buy 2-3 smack packs for every brew because you can either use a pack of dry yeast (Safale and Danstar yeast sachets really do contain enough yeast for 5-6 gal of beer up to 1.060), or you can make a yeast starter to build up more healthy yeast to pitch into your beer. Another option is to save the yeast slurry sitting on the bottom of your last batch of homebrew. The yeast you have on the bottom of your homebrew fermenter is usually healthy and there is a ton of it. Some people recommend that you only reuse yeast from beers under 1.060 OG that aren't hoppy, but, in my experience, anything under 1.070 OG can be reused just fine, hoppy or not. This is standard practice in the brewing industry. And while I avoid going more than 6 generations with my yeast, most pro brewries go 20+ generations before they start fresh. I just saved you $8 per batch of homebrew. Pitching rates (the amount of yeast you need for the beer you are producing) can be looked up in your homebrew software or at Mr. Malty.

Oxygenate Your Wort
Yeast need Oxygen to be happy. This can be achieved by adding O2 directly to your wort, or by stirring or otherwise aggressively aerating your wort to make sure their is enough oxygen in the wort to provide an ideal environment for the yeast to feast.

Pitch and Ferment at the Correct Temperature
After you made your wort, aerated id, and you are ready to pitch plenty of healthy yeast into the beer, you can still ruin your beer by fermenting at the incorrect temperature. This is the single most common brewing mishap. 9/10 homebrews I taste that I do not like were fermented too warm. Fermenting too warm can lead to the yeast producing various esters, phenols, and other off flavors, often "fruity" or "spicy," these off flavors make the beer taste unpolished, unprofessional, and like "homebrew" instead of craft beer. Yes the yeast companies tell you 65-72º F is the ideal temperature for most strains, but that is the fermentation temperature, not the ambient temperature outside the fermenter that they are describing, and they are considering fermentation in MUCH larger vessels. Larger fermenters, like a standard 10 bbl/310 gallon conical fermenter at a craft brewery, will permit higher fermentation temperatures with fewer yeast-derived off flavors. In your 5 gal carboy or 12 gallon plastic fermenter, you need to keep the temperature a few degrees cooler than that to get the cleanest flavor from most yeast strains. This often depends on the yeast strain, but I shoot for the low end of the "recommended" temperature range provided by the yeast manufacturer. How do I keep my fermentation so cool when my apartment is usually warmer than my ideal fermentation environment? I have a chest freezer with an external temperature control that I use to keep the temperature at a steady whatever-I-want-it-to-be. It looks like this (when it was in my old Portland apartment).
There are other ways of keeping your beer fermenting at the right temperature, and you can google "son of fermentation" and "homebrew swamp cooler" to find some of them.

Let It Finish
Your beer will tell you when it has finished fermenting. Krausen will fall, the airlock will stop bubbling, and you can check the gravity to make sure it stops dropping (checking once every 2 days after fermentation looks complete is a good method). Once the beer is finished, let it sit at a warm indoor temperature (~68-72º F) for a few days to make sure it cleans itself up and settles. If you can, after the beer has sat at a warmer temperature for some time, try to cool the whole fermenter down to 34º F or so. Spending a couple days at that cold temperature will help the yeast fall out of suspension and compact on the bottom of the fermenter. This makes it easier to rack the beer off of the yeast with minimal yeast tranfer (so your beer will be clearer), and the remaining yeast cake is easier to harvest for use in your next batch.

Take Care to Bottle or Keg Properly
I keg my beers and have a pretty good technique of force carbonating. But be weary of the kegs. Sometimes they can look fine, but not be perfectly sealed, causing your beer to oxygenate or spoil. You don't want this to happen, so don't let it happen. Once it is kegged or bottled and carbonated, give it a couple days cold before you pour off that first pint. Once you do, you will get a lot of the remaining suspended yeast out in the initial 4-8 oz. After that you beer will pour clearer and clearer every day. Try not to knock the keg around so you can keep it all nice and settled and the yeast doesn't get back into suspension.