Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On the aging of beer...

After delivering our second batch of beer a little over a month ago, I realized that some of our friends who have been tasting the different beers were holding on to bottles that were almost four months old — and older now. As we delivered the latest beers, we tasted the last set and discovered that they were starting to lose their character. This is nothing unusual for unfiltered, unpasteurized beers, but the closer I get to the business, the more I learn about what makes things work — and fail. I've heard of brewers tracking down beer on shelves after it's passing its prime, and I'm close to doing that myself.

What happens to the beer? The hops begin to fade, first of all. When hops fade, any flaws in malt character become more obvious. Styles tend to lose their differentiation. Any other flaws in production — infections, unsuccessful malt bills, and more — become glaring. We're not necessarily talking about skunked beer here, just beer that isn't as good as it should be. In general, the beer just goes bad.

When I try to explain this to non-brewers, I get glazed-over looks. I guess we're trained to believe that most things are immutable and will last as long as a processed cheese single. But the truth is that craft beer can be as delicate as good bread, ice cream or vegetables. These things go bad after a while, and so will beer.

Not every beer, though. Non-beer-geeks may know that some of us cellar bottles for months or years. These are beers with yeast that will keep working and ABVs that give them a decent shelf-life. These beers may have been aged in oak casks. They may have had grape must added. They may have interesting additives like honey or herbs with flavors that will evolve over time. In short, these are beers made to age. Think about a young Sauvignon Blanc versus an oak-aged Meritage, and you'll get the idea.

Fresh craft beer isn't made to age, however. Drink it as you get it, and you'll be happier. Oh, and it's beer. Good beer, hopefully.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Brewing, on the road.

The kid and I hit the road with my business partners yesterday to make a run up to Loudoun County. Our destination was Corcoran Vineyards outside Purcellville. Besides being good friends, the Corcorans have hooked up with a friend in Purcellville to open the first farm winery and brewery in Virginia.

When Jim Corcoran and I got to talking a few weeks ago, he mentioned that Kevin (their brewer) was going to be working on a Sabco Brew-Magic. My ears pricked up, particularly since Jim and I have been talking about my own move toward the business for well over a year now. Why not have them observe one of our brew sessions and have us shadow Kevin on his first brew session, I suggested. After all we've been brewing weekly on a Brew-Magic for more than six months. We could even step Kevin past some of the initial learning curves we discovered.

See, the trick about scaling up one's brewing is that it isn't just about numbers. The difference between a five gallon batch brewed using a DIY mash tun and a kettle on a turkey fryer and running a 12 to 15 gallon batch on a system like the Brew-Magic is night and day. Because the Sabco system is absurdly efficient, a grain bill may not directly scale. More complex grain bills may need to be simplified because you get so much more out of the grain, as well. The real change comes at the level of process. Cleaning processes move to whole new levels — and you go through a lot more soap and sanitizer. But the real process change I've observed is learning to let the system do the work for you. The Brew-Magic will take care of parts of the brewing process that even some production breweries don't have automated. It's a beautiful thing, when you let it do its job.

To that end, the experience on the Brew-Magic has taught all of us — my partners and the Corcoran's new brewer — a lot. And with each brew session, there seems to be another lesson. When (and if) we actually get our plan off the ground, the experience of brewing on this system will have been invaluable. I see this more after watching Kevin work today and realizing how far we've come in the past six months.


Above and beyond, however, what about the beer? We tasted Kevin's kolsch and stout. Both were clean and solid. The stout had a nice roast with a fairly light body. The kolsch had a slightly sweeter flavor profile than I usually expect with a kolsch. His APA which we brewed today had a nice hop character and good color coming out of the boil kettle. they should all be nice, sessionable ales.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ribs, ribs, ribs...

Last night, I made my first go at doing ribs in the oven. I've been a strict wood-fired guy in the past. Soaked chips, cider drip pan, and all. Last summer, I made my peace with a gas grill. Last night, I made my peace with doing ribs in the convection oven.

The ribs in question were the pork ribs Trader Joe's sells. They aren't ideal since they're not from one of my local producers or butchers, but I tend to trust TJ's products. It was a little under three pounds — perfect for the kid and me and some leftovers. When it came time to prepare them, I mixed up a quick dry rub with flaked sea salt, smoked paprika, sweet paprika, cumin, parsley, cracked pepper, and sugar. I was satisfied with the rub, though I might try brown sugar next time to add a little extra caramelization.

I heated the oven to 300 degrees, applied the rub, and wrapped the ribs in foil. After twenty minutes, I raised the heat to 350, and then to 375 after another half hour. To keep them from drying out, I mixed up a quick mop sauce of cider vinegar, garlic mustard and bourbon. I mopped this on every fifteen minutes after the first half hour. After an hour, I opened the foil to let the skin begin to form on the ribs. Since I was working entirely on improvisation, I waited until it seemed like the ribs had also begun to develop a nice crust. At that point, I mopped on barbecue sauce for the last fifteen minutes.

The result? Stellar. The ribs were tender, and the combination of mop sauce, smoked paprika, and barbecue sauce gave them a good flavor. It wasn't quite as good as a few hours over a wood fire, but sometimes a craving requires improvisation.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Tuesday Tune

Thanks to my friend Kendra, this is now lurking in my head. Think of it as digital vinyl blasting back from your youth.