Beer Review: Burley Oak Sorry Chicky

A friend was kind enough to lend me a book that I’m pretty excited about: From a Certain Point of View. It’s a collection of 40 short stories/character pieces to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Star Wars Episode IV: A New  Hope. It’s a nice, quiet evening at home with birds, books, and beer (my fav!) and a chance to reflect on the transformative power of stories. There’s hardly a better way to relax, if you ask me.

I opted for a can of Burley Oak‘s Sorry Chicky, which is a dry hopped sour ale that I picked up from Total Wine in Laurel. I’m very jazzed about the sound of this beer because when am I ever not excited about a sour beer?

It pours a rich straw gold  that looks awfully carbonated at a glance, which might just make for a very fun sour to drink. There’s no head, just a thin trace of foam that vanishes in less than a minute. It smells very richly sour with a real punch that will hopefully cause a bit of puckering. But it’s a complex smell that isn’t just bright and citrusy; there’s almost something earthy and spicy in the nose here. And maybe even a sweet melt backbone at work here? I have to dig in.

And whoa! It’s very sour and in your face! What a wallop!

But then there’s that unpleasant sort of cheerio taste that indicates that it’s a flawed sour most likely made with Brettanomyces. This beer is not at all enjoyable to me because of that wheaty cereal aftertaste. Now, does it pack a pucker punch? Yes. It does that right. It’s ambitious and unusual and I salute the creativity, but I feel like it wasn’t well-executed.

Two out of five mugs. I would not buy this again unless I heard that they changed their recipe.

Review: Sierra Nevada Beer Camp Across the World Dry Hopped Berliner Weisse

Somehow, I had never heard of the Beer Camp project from Sierra Nevada. Maybe I’ve been living under a rock. If that’s the case, I still need beer for my dark, dank rock-home. Enter Gilly’s on a fateful afternoon when I went in for a pint and some bottles and stumbled into the Beer Camp Across the World promotion/tap takeover. I was given a little paper passport and told that if I drank seven of the BCAW beers, I’d get a prize (it was a Nalgene-like water bottle plus some stickers and sunglasses, I think). Even seven half-pints is a lot of beer and anyway I had a BBQ to hit later that day, so I couldn’t loiter all day and drink a bunch of beers.

I first tasted the the ginger lager and the Thai-style iced tea and they were both amazing. It was genuinely hard to choose. Then my next door neighbor recommended the Dry Hopped Berliner Weisse, which I had overlooked, so I gave it a try.

It’s a cloudy straw color with a slight foamy head. There’s a touch of lacing, but nothing very strong there. There isn’t much of a nose. Maybe there’s a hint of lemon peel or something else citrusy and similar. It smells sour. Can something even smell sour? I vote yes.

Its taste is not overwhelmingly sour, but it is absolutely packed with flavor. It’s zingy and gently wheaty up front, which makes sense because they use their in-house kellerbier/Hefeweizen yeast. The dry hopping definitely comes through on the back end of the taste with a nice, resinous green hint. It really rounds the beer out. It’s not just sour; it has layers. There’s no dry finish to be had, this is a very clean beer.

Would I buy this again? Over and over. I actually did buy the sampler case for BCAW this year and then brought it to a party and drank the whole thing with friends. So, sadly, no more BCAW beer reviews. You’ll have to forgive me. Five out of five mugs!

Beer 201: Tetrahydropyridine

I like to call this one, “Excuse me, waiter? There’s some Cheerios in my beer.”

Time to drop some knowledge. So, remember the sour beer festival that I went to a few months back? Well, I ran into something that I hadn’t really been able to pin down before: sometimes, some sour beers tasted… weird. There was an aftertaste there. Something wheaty and kind of unpleasant. But I couldn’t place it.

Then my friend M said, “Ew, this one tastes like Cheerios” and everything fell into place. Cheerios! That was exactly the weird taste that I’d been getting! But what the heck would cause this kind of strange flavor that, in my opinion, clearly didn’t belong there? It was time for some Google fu.

There is a chemical compound called Tetrahydropyridine, produced by some yeasts*, that is responsible for this imperfection in the flavor of beers – and it is generally considered by brewers and wine makers (who battle this off flavor, too) to be a flaw. Brewers usually abbreviate it to THP (thank goodness, because that is not a word I feel like typing for a second time) and it is considered a ketone (which is something I actually know a bit about because of a diet I followed for years… ANYWAY). It is responsible for the Cheerios, biscuit/cracker, or – according to some people – urine-like “off” flavors in sour beers.

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What I have experienced the most is a Cheerios/dry wheat taste on the back end of a beer taste or as an aftertaste that lingers. This is apparently a pretty common experience… except I’ve read that not everyone is able to detect this funky flavor. The acidity/low pH of sour beers can mask or overwhelm the flavors (and usually the aroma, too) of THP. Since everyone’s tongue has a slightly different natural pH level itself, some folks’ mouths will cause an increase in the pH of the liquid and they will be able to taste the THP’s effects; some people’s natural pH levels won’t cause enough of change in the beer to reveal this flavor. I have a pretty attuned palate, generally speaking, so I’m not surprised that I’m sensitive enough to detect this kind of weirdness.

It sounds like aging beers will reduce or remove this flavor, in bottles, kegs, or fermenters. But this can take a few months’ time and small breweries, especially, don’t have the money or time to just sit on a beer – they have more beer to make and ship as soon as possible. I would bet money that sour beers from smaller breweries with more limited storage are more likely to have this problem.

Now, I wouldn’t say that this is a common problem; most sour beers I’ve tried don’t have this flaw. But the ones that do? Well, they stick out in my memory as being particularly off-putting. Would I send back a beer with this taste? Probably not. But I also just might not finish the glass and move on to something else.

*Brettanomyces, which is popular for sour beers and wild ales, is a common culprit for producing THP. Lactic Acid Bacteria and Acetic Acid Bacteria can also yield the compound.

 

Beer 101: Fermentation

I know I’m skipping around a little bit (after all, there are several steps that come before fermentation in the brewing process), but it’s kind of because fermentation is my favorite. After all, it’s responsible for some of the best-tasting things in life: beer, wine, cheese, and chocolate to name a few. It’s a  crucial step, chemically, as it creates the alcohol that we all enjoy (presumably you enjoy alcohol – you are on a beer blog).

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Photo from uncommoncaribbean.com

The Basics

Fermentation, at its very simplest, is the chemical process by which yeast converts the malts‘ sugar (glucose) into ethyl alcohol and C02 gas – this yields both the alcohol content and the carbonation that make beer, well, beer.

 

We’ve explained a little bit that temperature is important for this process, depending on the kind of yeast being used and the beer style that is being made – an ale needs to be kept at 68 degrees Fahrenheit for about two weeks and a lager needs to stay at 48 Fahrenheit for about six weeks. This process creates a lot of heat as a byproduct and so the container in which the fermentation happens generally needs to be carefully cooled.

To avoid contamination by stray, wild yeasts, fermentation tanks are generally sealed off from the air with only a small vent for the CO2 buildup to exit the tank.

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The Details

I’m no chemist, so I’m not going to go into that level of detail! However, there are some interesting things that go on during the fermentation process that need to be addressed. Yeast basically works in two stages during fermentation: the primary stage and the anaerobic phase.

In the primary stage, the yeast consumes all of the oxygen in the cooled and aerated wort mixture. During this stage, sterols (which are a type of cholesterol that make up part of the yeast’s cell wall) are produced. These sterols allow the cell wall to be permeable so sugar and alcohol can move in and out of the yeast cells; they also allow the yeast to survive in an increasingly alcoholic environment

Once that oxygen is gone, the yeast moves into the anaerobic phase, during which most of the sugars in the wort are turned into ethanol and CO2. Additionally, flavor compounds like esters (fruity notes) , diacetyl/ketones (butterscotch notes), fusel alcohols (responsible for a hot or burning sensation), and other chemicals that can make or break the flavor of a final beer.

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Other Uses for Fermentation

Cacao seeds must be fermented (often out in the sun, on large tarps) before being dried and then roasted in order to create the chocolate flavor that we know.

In winemaking, fermentation begins naturally when the skin of grapes is broken and the wild yeast on them and in the air begin the primary fermentation stage, turning sugar in to alcohol.

Fermentation happens several times along the journey from milk to cheese, developing flavors and even creating the famous holes in Swiss cheese.

The workhhorse of bread making, yeast-based fermentation creates the textures, flavors, and rise in bread doughs.

Pickles, sauerkraut, kimchee, and more can be fermented during the pickling process, allowing natural bacteria to create acids needed to preserve foods.

 

Jailbreak Brewery Review Part 3

I visited Jailbreak Brewery on a rainy Saturday in January to take their brewery tour. Our group of about a dozen people was met by Clay, who’s been a brewer at Jailbreak for about 2 1/2 years now. We started out in the mill room, where we learned a little bit about some of the ingredients and equipment that make up beer’s humble beginnings. I’m talking about malt and hops, some of which we got to see up close and smell.

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This room has a tiny little mill that cracks open the malt gently, but doesn’t make flour out of it. Jailbreak uses a lot of specialty malts in their brews in addition to new hybrids and varieties of hops that are coming around every year. Because of these ingredients, Jailbreak is pleased to have “a pretty full portfolio,” but is experimenting all the time.

Next, we took a stroll to the top of a large kettle where beer gets its start. Temperature, Clay reminded us all, is very important. After all, yeast are delicate little organisms that can only thrive in certain temperature ranges – and whether it’s an ale or a lager style beer determines how warm to keep a fermentation tank. The “wort,” which is the cooking beer liquid, must also be sterilized to eliminate any wild yeast that might get in and disrupt the expected beer process.

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I was curious what they did with all of their “spent” grains (I’ve been to brewpubs that use them in pizza or pretzel dough in the restaurant) and it turns out they go to a local farm as part of the animal feed. Less waste is always good!

Jailbreak is a 600 gallon operation, which is a decent size for such a small facility. While a one-way CO2 vent was bubbling away in a bucket of water, Clay told us that part of the reason for the brewery’s location had to do with the local water being a “pretty good blank slate.” He pointed out the prominent stainless steel tanks in the room, explaining a little about the process of cold crashing beers and managing fermentation temperatures. All in all, he said, it takes about 2-3 weeks from start to finish to brew a batch of beer.

I learned something strange and new! Yeast, that helpful little bacteria that ferments beer, reproduces very quickly. Generations can come and go in just a few weeks and with such a short life span, colonies of yeast is able to start to mutate over a relatively short period of time. This sounds like something exciting out of an issue of X-Men, but mutated yeast can spell bad news for brewers; it can mess with the consistency of breweries’ products and ruin whole batches of beer. That’s why many professional brewers only “pitch” (add/use) the same yeast strain 3-5 times.

We got to try a hefe that was about 2 days away from being ready to can. It was cloudy and flat as it’s an unfiltered beer and had not yet been force carbonated with CO2. It was bright, as a hefe weizen should be, but something about the mouthfeel was very strange without the carbonation.

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Jailbreak fills their kegs one at a time, so it can be a slow operation. In addition to carbonating and kegging or canning the beer, Jailbreak experiments with some barrel aging. Some of the barrel aging projects are up to 2 1/2 years old, many in bourbon barrels. Bourbon barrels are readily available to breweries since part of the regulation that governs what bourbon is that it must be aged in a new barrel. Used barrels are literal garbage to bourbon makers. The brewers are sampling all of these beers all the time because, as Clay says, they are “living, breathing things” and are unpredictable.

We moved next to the canning operation. I know there’s some controversy about canned vs bottled beers, but I don’t have any problems with cans myself. Jailbreak opted for cans 3 years ago because light can’t get in (which is good for hopped beers), the seams are sealed against oxidation, they’re more portable, good on palettes, and have a lower carbon footprint than bottles. Their can holders are also made from 97% recycled materials and have no holes to harm turtles or fish. Makes sense to me.

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Finally, after glimpsing cold storage, we talked a bit about the brewery’s past as well as its future. The owners were once bored government contractors that stirred up 2.5million to start the company – their escape – their “jailbreak” from their boring 9-5 jobs. They’re at the brewery almost every day. Looking forward, Jailbreak is going to change from the food truck model of service to opening their own in-house small plates kitchen, fast casual style sometime in June 2017. They also want to change from being open 4 days a week to being open 6 days a week, which will mean a change in their license from tap room to brewpub. They’re also hoping to start making cider as well.

Overall, I’m pleased with what I’ve seen and tasted from Jailbreak. They seem really dedicated to quality through repetition as well as trying new and experimental things on the side. They’re environmentally conscientious, which makes this grumpy old hippie pretty happy. And I liked all of their beers that I had  (well, except for the Ephemeral Vol 1 – but that’s just a preference thing for me). Maybe the customer service at the bar is a tiny bit lacking; there never seem to be enough bar tenders to take care of that whole tap room really thoroughly. Still, I can’t fault them for much. If you’re in the area, I definitely recommend swinging by.

Beer 101: Yeast

Yeast is one of the four main ingredients that go into making beer, beautiful beer. The others are hops, malt, and water (this post is next in my Beer 101 series). There are certainly other ingredients that can be added to the beer process, but these four are the core pillars that hold up the whole thing.

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These itty bitty single-celled microrganisms are technically classified as a fungi. They reproduce by an asymmetric division process called budding. Their job is to convert fermentable sugars from the malt into alcohol and other byproducts. There are hundreds of varieties and strains of yeast out there, some of which are commonly used to brew beer.

Yeasts are generally put into one of two categories: ale yeast (top fermenting) or lager yeast (bottom fermenting), depending on how they behave during the fermentation process. There’s also a nebulous third category, known as spontaneously fermenting yeasts, which result when beer is left exposed to the air and is literally infected with wild yeast strains as they wander by – this is what creates sour beers.

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Ale yeasts generally sit on top of the beer-to-be, fermenting away between temperatures of 10° to 25°C (though some yeasts won’t activate below 12°C). These guys rise up to the surface, forming a thick raft of a head as they bubble away. These yeasts tend to yield beers higher in esters, which are the chemicals that give fruits their characteristic flavors. In the case of Hefe Weizen beers, the yeast produces the ester iso-amyl acetate, the same one that is found in bananas. Other esters include ethyl acetate, which can be flowery, and ethyl caproate, which is kind of wine-like and fruity. Top-fermenting yeasts are used for brewing ales, porters, stouts, Kölsch, Altbier, and wheat beers.

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Lager yeasts create much less of a head and tend to settle at the bottom of the tank as fermentation nears completion. They grow less rapidly than the ale yeasts and don’t create that layer of thick foam on top of the beer. These yeasts work at lower temperatures, around 7° to 15°C.

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In addition to making beer the alcoholic beverage that we so enjoy, it also has a large impact on the flavor of the final beer. The flavor and aroma of beer is complex and is influenced by  many factors, including malt, hops, and the yeast strain. The synthesis of yeast creates many byproducts, including ethanol (alcohol), CO2 (carbon dioxide), and also some flavor compounds like clove, butterscotch, and green apple.

Yeast may be tiny and invisible to the naked eye, but it plays a huge role in making beer what it is.

 

 

Review: Hofbrau Münchner Hefe Weizen

This beer might be called  a happy accident. I used the shopping service at my local grocery store and, while I ordered the Oktoberfestbier from Hofbraü Münchner for myself, it turns out that the shopper accidentally grabbed the Hefe Weizen instead. Now, me? I didn’t notice the mix-up until I went to open the beer up a few days later. And, while I prefer Oktoberfest/festbier styles over Hefes, it’s still a style that I like well enough. So I went with it!

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Hefe Weizen beers are a type of German wheat beer that is made with at least 50% malted wheat (remember Beer 101: Malt?). It gets a lot of its punch from the yeast that is used, from the nose to the taste. “Weizen” means “wheat” and “hefe” means “yeast,” after all, so this beer strongly relies on those two elements to shape its flavor profile. The hefeweizen yeast style tends to create clove and banana notes in beer.

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It was poured from a green glass bottle into a Sam Adams Perfect Pint glass (more on that glass in a later post!). It was a light, cloudy golden color with a fluffy white head that sticks around for a good long while. It smelled lightly grainy with no spice or banana nose to speak of. It has soft flavors like banana, bread, grass, and lemon.

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Honestly, it is weakly flavored overall. I like my Hefe beers stronger than this with a lot of banana and clove flavor to them. So while I’ve got a six pack of these to go through, I’m not too unhappy about it. They lack something in flavor, but are definitely refreshing beers all the same.

Beer 101: Hops

You’re going to hear me talk about a hops a lot in this blog. Partly because they’re a huge part of what makes beer, well… beer. But also because my tastes run toward IPAs right now and those tend to be hoppy by nature.

This first post in my Beer 101 series will take a look at what hops are, how they are used in the brewing process, and the effects they have on the flavor profile of a finished beer.

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Hops are one of the key pieces of beer brewing (the others being water, grains, and yeast) and are the flower of the female hops plant, Humulus lupus, which is related to the hemp family. Hops contain an essential oil that the tongue reads as being very bitter. This dry, bitterness can be used to balance out the sweetness that the malts in a beer create. Hops also act as a natural preservative and have antibacterial properties.

A beer made without hops can exist, but it would be cloyingly sweet and very one-note. Hops aren’t the only plant that can be used to flavor beer. Spruce, herbs, flowers and more can be used. But hops are the go-to if the brewer isn’t making anything too out there.

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Let us turn our attention to this helpful graphic! The parts of the hops flower are easily labelled here. The entire flower can be used as-is, though compressed pellets of hops exist and are used by some brewers to flavor their beer. Deep inside of these buds are little packets of resins and oils that lend that bitter flavor profile to beer.

Hops are actually kind of a newcomer in beer brewing, when you consider that beer has been made for around 9,000 years. Beer’s origins are more closely linked to the malt ingredients in the brew and were made with grains and yeast from bread making in its early years. Hops were first used in beer around 822 AD and even then, somewhat sparsely. Before the use of hops, beers were flavored and preserved using a mix of spices and fruits called “gruit” or “grut.”It’s really only in the last 200 years that hops have had their day.

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There are several steps in the brewing of beer and hops can be added into the mix at almost any of them, depending on what the flavor profile goal is. Hops can be added before or during the first boil of the beer, in the mash tun, or during tank or barrel conditioning. Each of these choices will affect the final beer product’s taste.

There are also a wide variety of hops available, each bringing its own unique flavor profile to the mix. There are several Continental or Noble Hops, which originated in central Europe and have a mild bitterness and spicy/floral aromas: Hallertau, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz. English hops, which are herbal, grassy, and fruity: East Kent Goldings, Fuggle, Challenger, Target, and Progress. Bright, fruity, and resinous American hops: Cascade, Centennial, Chinook, Willamette, and Amarillo.

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Photo from menuinprogress.com

The above list is far from comprehensive. There are a large number of hops that I didn’t name in those little lists, many of which are American hops that are being hybridized, grown, studied, and analyzed even by Universities. There have been exciting new hops making their way into the market over the last decade.

So while hops aren’t truly necessary to brewing beer, what we think of as modern beer just wouldn’t be the same without them. So the next time you hear some know-it-all like me talking about “hoppiness” or “a hop-forward beer,” you can understand that I’m trying to find a way to describe the aromatic and bitter flavor profile that these plants bring to beer.

Review: Stillwater Artisanal G13

Har har, I know, I know. I went to Oregon to get local beers there and accidentally bought a beer from my home state. I see the irony. You don’t need to point it out. I’ll admit that the label on the bottle seduced me; I have no background in graphic design myself, but I can definitely appreciate when it’s done well. The Stillwater Artisanal G13 bottle is very attractive to the eye and very different from the art on many other typical beer bottles.

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It is described as an wild India Pale Ale aged on cedar. The word “wild” is something very key here. It means that a wild yeast called Brettanomyces is introduced during the brewing process, which can produce very unpredictable results int he areas of funk, spice, and acidity. Beers that are spiked with this yeast get the affectionate nickname of a “Brett IPA.” And, as far as Bretts go, this is a pretty good one.

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This beer was poured from a 22oz bomber bottle into a pint glass. It poured a medium golden yellow with a generous white head that left behind minimal lacing. It smelled like a tangy, tropical fruit and maybe something a little sour, and something a little grassy-green. If I remember correctly, my brain wanted me to think that I was smelling pineapple or passion fruit.

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It tasted like a wheat beer with some subtle banana or pineapple notes over a layer of what I swear tasted like hay or straw. It is, in my opinion, on the very cusp of being a sour beer – which I like and am for – but it doesn’t quite reach that level of zippiness. I would say that it has medium to high carbonation, making it sort of fun to drink. It’s not bitter at all and has a very clean aftertaste.

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The G13, it seems, was brewed only once. Perhaps it will never be made again and I was lucky enough to have a taste of its only iteration. Or perhaps they will brew it again, but the Brettanomyces yeast will do its magic and create another slightly different, unique beer. Who knows? Either way, I’m happy I got to try it.