Monday, April 28, 2008

Russian Imperial Stout

It was another brewing weekend at the Palm HQ. This weekend I did my first all-grain Russian Imperial Stout. Technically speaking it was my second batch of this style, but the first one was an accident. Two years ago I spent the better part of a Saturday making two batches of beer slated for our annual Assumption Feast at our Latin Mass apostolate.

One was supposed to be a simple pale ale, the other a simple stout. Well, somehow I got mixed up on how much a cup of dry malt extract (DME) weighs, so I ended up adding exactly twice as much DME as the recipes called for. I didn't find out until both beers were in the fermenters and I took a hydrometer reading. So instead of pale ale and stout, I had "barleywine" and "imperial stout".....sort of.

I was concerned that there would not be enough hop bitterness to offset that amount of malt and that the end results would be too sweet. But in fact both batches turned out well. The stout was pretty good and I enjoyed it, although it was not nearly roasty enough. But the Faux Pas Barleywine, as I called it, was actually quite excellent and a big hit at the Assumption Feast of 2006 alongside a cherry wheat and a chocolate stout.

Anyway, this past Saturday I made my first intentional batch of Russian Imperial Stout, a viscous black brew originally created by the British for sale to the Russian Czars. This is an intense brew for a pretty intense people. I used the Old Rasputin Imperial Stout clone recipe from Beer Captured by Mark and Tess Szamatulski. Old Rasputin from North Coast Brewing is my very favorite commercial Russian Imperial Stout. This dude has won a lot of awards and they are well justified. It is powerful in every way--intensely black, roasty, bitter, thick, and complex. As you can see at the Beer Advocate site, this one gets very high marks from just about everybody who tries it.

It is rather on the pricey side, though. So what better than to try to homebrew this thing? I did an overnight mash, which means that about 9 pm on Friday night I dumped the pre-measured, pre-heated water into my ground grains, stirred it up, shut the lid, packed thick bats of insulation around it, and went to bed. What you're shooting for is to prevent the mash from losing so much heat that it goes below 140 deg F, which is where bacteria can start souring your mash. I mashed in at about 151 deg F and the temp was right at 140 deg F twelve hours later. This really helps the brewing on Saturday from intruding too much on other chores.

The long and short of it is that I now have 5 1/2 gallons of imperial stout bubbling away. The wort (unfermented beer) tasted fantastic--intensely roasty and intensely bitter, but very smooth. You can't always tell much about the final beer from the wort, but in this case I was encouraged that the wort tasted so smooth, without any harsh bitterness, astringency, or acrid flavors poking out.

One of the great beauties of homebrewing is that, once you have mastered some basic skills, you can make whatever kind of beer you want, whenever you want it.

A few other commercial Russian Imperial Stouts are Bell's Expedition Stout and Big Bear Black Stout, both of which are really exceptional as well, and Samuel Smith's Imperial Stout which I now refuse to drink because the maker does not have enough respect for their own beers or those who drink them to put it in something besides a clear bottle.

Two that I would love to try are the Founder's Imperial Stout and Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout. They are highly rated beers from top-notch breweries, but unfortunately unavailable in my area.

On the docket for next Saturday is an 11 gallon batch of American amber ale using all Amarillo hops.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Stout Float — not quite a PalmHQ original

This was a brewing weekend at the PalmHQ. I tried out my new grain mill for the first timeso far, so good on that. I put 11 gallons of British bitter in the fermenters, so that's bubbling away and should be on tap in a few weeks. Currently on draft I have the last of a maibock which is absolutely delicious, the last of the Scotch ale reviewed below, and an oatmeal stout. In the fermenter I have an ordinary bitter made from a Cooper's kit that I got for free (story and tasting notes in an upcoming entry) and the bitter I made yesterday. Yet this spring I hope to do an 11 gallon batch of an American pale ale, which is a wonderful easy-drinking beer for summer, and 5 gallons each of British barleywine and Russian imperial stout. These last two beers require extensive aginga fellow homebrewer here at work told me today that he cracked a three year old barleywine over the weekend and it was spectacularso I'm keen to get them started.

Today's posting is about a drink you've probably never heard of before, the stout float. I tried this combination of black beer and ice cream several years ago, while making rootbeer floats for my children. I had a nice Irish stout on tap so......why not? I thought that perhaps I was the inventor of the mix, but alas a quick Web search showed that I was far from original.

Original or not, it's well worth trying. The bitterness and coffee notes of the stout blend beautifully with the sweet creaminess of the ice cream. Still, it is not everyone's cup of tea or mug of beer, by any means. Probably only one in three or four of the people who have tried it at my place think much of it. I love it. My lovely model is presenting the stout float I had this weekend, made with chocolate rather than vanilla ice cream and an oatmeal stout made right here at the PalmHQ.

I've not yet been brave enough to try, say, a pale ale float, but a porter float is good too. So give it a try with a nice, roasty, black beer and tell me what you think.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Beer Scene in China

I returned a few weeks ago from my second of probably-annual treks to China on business. So obviously I need to post on the beer scene in China.

The intermediate stops don't really count, but I'll mention them anyway. The staggeringly expensive Business Class roundtrip from La Crosse to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Shanghai features as much as you care to drink of a great variety of beers, wines, and spirits. But you've got to be really careful about drinking very much when flying long-distance because it can end up as a serious double-whammy: the flight dehydrates you and the alcohol does as well, so you could come out on the other end pretty raisinesque and miserable if you're not careful. I was careful and the only beer that I had in transit was a glass of Sappora, a very crisp, dry Japanese lager served, appropriately enough, in the Tokyo airport on the way there, and a glass of Summit Extra Pale Ale in the Minneapolis airport on the way back.

In China itself there is frankly not much of a variety to choose from, at least in the normal vendors near my hotel in downtown Shanghai. Sure, at an upscale restaurant you can get pretty much anything you want. But there is nothing like the microbrew revolution taking place in China, so in the equivalent of our 7-Elevens the options are fairly limited. Heineken is the only Western import that is regularly available. But I don't care for that particular brew here and I'm even less likely to get it when it's almost certain not to be fresh.

There are a few very light, gassy Japanese beers like Suntory that are frequently available in China, but these lack any significant character. There was one dark Chinese beer I could find in just a few shops which was called, appropriately enough "Dark Beer". One dimensional, a slight molasses note, no malt character at all--it was like mediocre homebrew. There are three Chinese beers that I could get consistently: Harbin, Yanjing, and Tsingtao. All three are pilsner style lagers, very pale and highly effervescent. The Harbin is the least notable of the three--the hop bittering is subdued and there is not much malt character either. I had it once and didn't bother with it again. Yanjing, particularly popular in Beijing (that city's native brew, I understand), is better, but nothing really to write about.

Tsingtao distinguishes itself from the pack. This beer has a nice, upfront malt presence which melds nicely with an assertive, slightly spicy hop bittering. The carbonation level is high and, as with all lagers, this is much better drunk on the cold side. It goes extremely well with Chinese food and is readily available here in the U.S. as well. While I would probably never actually buy a six-pack of it here, I frequently order one in a Chinese restaurant. Tsingtao is available in both a regular and "draft" version. In Shanghai, at least, the draft version costs twice as much and is inferior, to my taste, so I stuck with the regular. The beer that I would really like to try but never saw there is Tsingtao Dark Beer. The next time I go back I'm going to keep my eyes peeled and perhaps even ask around for that one.

The only other beer experience I had was a liter of Paulaner M√ľnchen at the Paulaner Brauhaus in Shanghai on Xintiandi Street. I took my colleagues there for a traditional German meal, something as completely foreign to them as many of their indigenous dishes were to me.

Now I love Paulaner beers so I was rather excited about the prospects of this liter. But it was a disappointment. The menu said that the beer was "homebrewed", probably an awkward translation from Chinese which I took to mean brewed either on the premises (although I saw no evidence of such equipment) or at least in country. Whatever it meant, the result was disappointing. The beer did not taste fresh. The characteristic malt profile of a German beer was entirely missing and the hop character was out of balance, with a sort of "edge" to it that made the drink rather unpleasant. And it was darn expensive to boot.

Obviously, one doesn't go to China for the beer. Tsingtao is very good, but I was happy to get back to the incredible variety available here in the U.S.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Two of My Brews Reviewed

Well, we've reviewed a bunch of commercial brews on this blog, but what about my own beers? I sent bottles of two of my homebrews—an American-style India Pale Ale (IPA) and an 80-shilling Scotch ale—to a couple of friends for Christmas. Here are the recipes for these brews, followed by their tasting notes.

Easy as PI P.A.

This homebrew was a super easy batch to make and the results were really nice. I used a pre-hopped can of Munton's Ironmaster IPA liquid malt extract, two pounds of Munton's dry malt extract, and a cup and a half of table sugar (ironically, to avoid the final product from being too sweet. The yeast eat up all this sugar, the final beer has a little more alcohol and so tastes a little less sweet.) I fermented this beer with a package of Fermentis US05 dry yeast and dry hopped it in the keg with half an ounce of Willamette hops. I agree with MF on the distinct honey note in this beer and I think it came from the sort of resinous quality of the Willamette hops. I thought it turned out great and I was sad to see it go.

Review by MF:
Before reviewing this particular beer, I have to confess that I've never been a fan of this variety of beer. IPAs are usually too bitter and "pangy" for my tastes. However, I've finally found an IPA that I'd gladly reach for at a bar or in my refrigerator.

Palm's IPA poured a pleasing light orangish-red. The carbonation was at a nice, balanced level, not overpowering. The aroma of citrus, grapefruit really, promises and delivers the same upon the palate along with a wonderful pairing of honey which perfectly softens the edge or "pang" that so often accompanies IPAs.

My First Scotch Ale

This batch has been my very favorite of everything I've brewed. I brewed an eleven gallon batch and at the time I'm posting this, I still have about a gallon left. It is just wonderful. I brewed this on 11/10/07 from a recipe I got from Jamil Zainasheff's book (to be reviewed soon), with a few tweaks based on what I had on hand: 11 lbs. Maris Otter pale malt, 5 lbs. Breiss pale malt, 2 lbs. Munich malt, 1 lb. 120L crystal malt, 1 lb. honey malt, 1 1/2 lb. 60L crystal malt, 1/4 lb. chocolate malt. I mashed this dude at 155 deg F. I hopped it with 2 3/4 oz. of Fuggle hops for 21.5 IBU of bittering. My OG was 1.066 and I fermented it pretty cool (61 deg F ambient) with a WYeast 1968 London ESB slurry that I had saved from a previous batch. I had a pint yesterday and it was simply incredible. I've worked for years to learn to brew something like this. This beer is what homebrewing is all about.

Review by MF:

This hearty ale pours a nice, rich, reddish brown. I had two samples of the ale and drank them about a month apart. I thoroughly enjoyed both. However, there were slight differences in the bottles. The bottle I sampled first had a slightly higher level of carbonation. Not excessive, nice. And it was slightly sweeter, what some have described as toward "toffee" or "caramel". It's a rich beer, but still "clean." As expected, the flavors became more pronounced as it warmed in my glass.

The second bottle evidenced slightly less carbonation (still very nice) and the flavor had moved toward a very yummy molasses. It seemed to feel a bit heavier, richer with age. All in all, I slightly preferred the younger version to the older, although both were very enjoyable. As a side note, and this is especially true of all ales in my opinion (and somewhat less true of lagers), I would never recommend drinking either of these directly from the bottle. The narrow opening doesn't allow the wonderful aromas to complement and enhance the flavor. In this, I find that beer has much in common with wine.