2017 Brewing in Review

25 Dec

The post I wrote on this day last year came up in my “Remember When…” among my social media feeds. Re-reading it, I thought it might be fun to write up my year in brewing for 2017 in the same way, recipe by recipe.

Top of the World

At the end of last year, I met Danny and Jesse of Dark Cloud Malthouse. In last year’s post, I mentioned doing some sensory analysis and brewing a couple of beers to help them dial in their malting process. This was the first of beers, a cream ale using nothing but their 6-row barley and a bit of flaked maize. Top of the World was far and away the lightest, brightest beer I have made. It was incredibly drinkable, so much so I made another batch just last month. This is the first recipe I’ve made twice in one year.

Pirate King

I mentioned this beer in last year’s post, too. As planned, I aged this beer about half a year and finished on oak. I am happy with how this big beer turned out though I have a few ideas for improving it or any similar beer I might make. Namely I’ve since read some good advice about how big beers can often be better if made a bit drier since alcohol adds a lot of perceived sweetness. I had another, commercially made wee heavy this year that I feel really drives this point home, DC Brau’s Stone of Arbroath.

First Citizen

This was the first recipe I suggested for Danny and Jesse’s malt. Rightly they asked if I could come up with something that allowed the malt to show through more. I liked the idea of trying to make a common beer that in some way captured Maryland’s brewing or agricultural heritage. After making this one, though, I think Top of the World was the better beer. First Citizen was awfully close to the brown beers I favor making in the Spring. If I re-visit this recipe, I will probably give it a deeper re-think, to pull more out of the malt and differentiate it a bit more. I’ve also had a chance to use some rye from Dark Cloud which I think could be a nice showcase element for a renewed attempt at a Maryland common beer.

Best Interest

Usually I make this beer and my 80 shilling in the Spring. This year, I only made the mild. My wee heavy was based on my 80 shilling recipe and I managed somehow to fit two additional beers right at the start of the year. I definitely feel like this year’s batch was an improvement over last year. Not in the least because this time I wasn’t struggling with a new plate chiller and pumps. I don’t feel like my mild is all the way where it needs to be, yet. I am currently reading Jennifer Talley’s book, “Session Beers”, in part for inspiration on how to really dial this beer in better. I’ll take the process improvements that this beer represents over last year’s batch and own that I didn’t go as far on the recipe and flavor side as I had hoped, I’ll double down on this recipe especially in the coming year.

A Sprig of Grass

My IPA is one the beers I look forward to making and drinking each Summer. Most of the beers I’ve made in the past three years are darker, more malt forward. I try to use hops to good effect in all my recipes but Sprig and my bitters are where I really get to lean into what hops bring to the brew. For my 2017 batch, I upped the hopping rate considerably, based on the impressions from the year prior that the rather traditional, English inspired grain bill really could withstand a much more aggressive hand with the hops. After more than doubling the hops and spreading the multiple varieties more evenly between the whirlpool additions and dry hopping, I am pretty proud of this recipe. The trick for the coming Summer will be producing a batch entirely consistent with this last one.

Undeserved Praise

I made two best bitters last year, a pretty straightforward one and one with a bit of caramel rye. I really loved the rye variation so decided to only make that version this year. My timing was pretty excellent on it, Danny and Jesse right before that brew day had just given me about a pound of some local rye they malted. This year’s batch was definitely improved for adding malted rye along with the caramel rye. The particular variety they first malted turns out to be sweeter with a much more subtle spice contribution than you would expect from rye. All in all, this was a solid improvement over a recipe I already enjoyed greatly. I believe I may be able to get more malted rye, possibly both the milder variety and some of a locally grown one that the guys described as more “peppery”, or consistent with what you’d expect. I think the challenge will be in pushing that spice just a little more without over doing it. I look forward to brewing this one again.

Modest Imperfection

I wrote last year about how I re-worked this recipe to both split the difference between my barley wine and a much smaller version while hewing closer to the historic inspiration. I haven’t packaged the 2017 batch, yet. I was going to until I was tinkering with my planning spreadsheet and realized I needed to do a far better job of modeling my throughput from fermenter to keg. This year’s Burton ale is going to age a bit longer, until March, so that I can get both it and my old ale, next year, into six month alteration. This will tie up one fermenter pretty much full time going forward. That is better than the haphazard way I had been bulk aging which meant I had dry spells and a couple of close calls where a keg kicked uncomfortably close to when I needed to free a tap for the next beer. This year’s batch was also the first one I made with a new pump, a much better engineered, more powerful one that is a tidy upgrade from the first ones I added to the home brewery last year.

This brew was the first to benefit from my biggest upgrade this year: a glycol chiller. I wrote about switching to me first temperature controller steel fermenters in last year’s post. I added a third fermenter this year then with a bonus from my day job, snagged the chiller along with upgraded controllers and heaters for each fermenter. I was able to do a reasonable job with the initial controllers and a cooler that I would switch between cooling with frozen jugs of water and heating with an aquarium heater when I need to bump fermentation temperature a bit. That initial set up had some limitations, in terms of how quickly I could adjust, especially if I had more than one beer in primary. With the heaters and the chiller, each fermenter can be managed through its own independent temperature regime and largely hands free, just dialing the temperature in as needed on each day of fermentation.

Brimstone Hill

I told my dad about an idea I had for a new recipe around this time last year when I got a chance to visit with him. When I was younger, I had the very good fortune to travel all over the Caribbean with him. First it was for family vacations and then when I was a teenager, it was part of the Summer jobs I had working for him. Some of my favorite memories traveling with him led me to this idea: a tropical stout since Guinness had a brewery in the West Indies around where we were traveling and the addition of sorrel, a local flower used in family recipes for a very tasty punch that unsurprisingly goes well with rum. His suggestion was to add some Scotch bonnet pepper, which grows natively in the region and was a flavor common to a lot of the dishes we enjoyed both on those travels and in re-creating them at home.

This beer had a bit of a rough start, I had a stuck mash that almost ruined the batch and then what I thought was an off flavor when I pulled a sample just a week before I planned to keg it. Fortunately, quick thinking prevailed on the brew day and the off sample turned out to be an object lesson in not tasting beer right after toothpaste. The beer turned out incredibly well, with a wonderful fruit like aspect.

Friendship’s Shrine

Starting with this brew day, every brew through the end of the year was pleasantly uneventful. I infused the spices for the brown ale separately this year. I feel I was better able to tame the cinnamon and net a better vanilla flavor. If anything, I feel like the cacao was still a bit understated. I’ve since read in one of the brewing magazines I subscribed to this year a couple of great article on spices and adjuncts that has me thinking I may overhaul this recipe next year. It is a surprisingly drinkable beer and this year’s batch was no exception. It was not a s’more in a glass though. I kind of want to split it into the base beer so I can explore a solid brown ale and a re-imagined version that comes way closer to the chocolatey, sweet and smoking mess of the fireside treat.

True Politeness

Speaking of wanting to try base beers used from batches using spices or adjuncts, I finally made a batch of the plain porter that was the basis for the coffee porter from the start of 2016. I had one last minute recipe change due to my inability to perform basic arithmetic. The end result is that the chocolate malt portion was split into equal measures of chocolate malt, chocolate rye, and midnight wheat. I think that math accident yielded a better beer with just the right amount of subtle complexity. In 2018, I may try to simply replicate that accident intentionally or even push it a little further, to see how much more of the contributions of those additional malts I can pull through without overdoing it.

Rambling Digression

I really enjoyed this recipe that I made, straight from a magazine article, for the first time last year. I made the exact same beer this year, without alteration. Like my Burton ale, it is still aging in the fermenter though I will be kegging it soon, early in the new year. I kegged the previous batch very fresh and I think this year’s version will benefit from a bit more aging before packaging. I opened the very last bottle of the 2016 made brew recently, enjoying it while lamenting that I didn’t manage to hang onto any more to see just how well it aged. I suppose I will have to try to bottle even more of this upcoming batch. The new alternating aging schedule also has me seriously contemplating a barrel program. I will likely do a good deal of research to see how I might plan that, whether I start it this coming year or the year after.

Cursing the Darkness

I just made this beer again a couple of days ago as I am writing this. My second batch of Top of the World is on tap and should be an interesting contrast when I keg this stout in a few weeks. Like my old ale, I enjoyed last year’s batch of the Scottish double brown stout so much, I made no changes this time around. This is an odd beer that almost shouldn’t work but does quite brilliantly. It is dark, roasty, sweet and very well hopped, both in the whirl pool and dry hopped before packaging. It takes a bit of time on tap to fully mature but once it does, it goes quickly as I love sharing it and drinking it myself. The brew day for this recipe this year was just about perfect in every way, going super smoothly from first setup through putting away the very last piece of kit.

How Did I Do

For 2017, I wanted to lean into flavor a bit more, whether that was recipe formulation or better using ingredients. I didn’t explore much new in terms of recipe. I think I did OK with ingredients, especially in the improvements to the spiced brown ale and the choices for the tropical stout, though Dad still deserves credit for the brilliant stroke of adding a bit of Scotch bonnet to the latter.

I did a lot more malt sensory evaluation, both for Danny and Jesse and for my own benefit. Halfway through the year I switched from using Maris Otter, a heirloom British malt, as my base in just about every recipe to using their locally grown 2-row. The beers that benefited were all dark just due to my seasonal preferences. In my mind though their 2-row has the exact right character to provide the blank canvas and sustain the contributions of all the much darker specialty malts. They are working on a Munich malt which I can see trying along with their 2-row in my paler, Summer beers, to maintain that wonderful malty character I prefer in my own hoppy beers.

I switched my hopping pretty much entirely to first wort and whirlpool. I am pretty happy with the rest results, I think I am getting a clean bitterness with a lot more aroma and character from those late additions in particular. I’ve heard and read a bit more that suggests that middle additions, though subtle, may still be worth considering for some recipes. I may experiment, especially in the Summer, with restoring those more traditional hop schedules.

I increased my use of Cluster, an heirloom American hop, alongside Goldings, Fuggles, and Bramling Cross, all British varieties I adore. I have stocked some Challenger in the freezer for next year to change things up and am looking at more varieties from the farm that produces the Cluster that is increasingly one of my favorite dual use hops. I may try both their locally grown British varieties in lieu of imports as well as some of the American varieties they offer and suggest as substitutes.

Looking Ahead

According to my fancy new tap driven brewing schedule, I actually do not need to brew again until February. In January I will be putting on the Scottish stout and the old ale. Hopefully I will bottle, share and drink enough of the cream ale in time to free the necessary space.

In the coming year, I will be returning to every recipe from this past year except the common and the wee heavy. The wee heavy will be replaced with its smaller cousin, the more sessionable 80 shilling. I have one special occasion beer planned, for the wedding of a couple of good friends who routinely have joined brew days over the last two years. There are two more open slots in my schedule. The re-formulated Maryland common might return for one of those, especially if I luck into more local rye. Otherwise, I am contemplating a nice Irish red and possibly a double IPA version of A Sprig of Grass.

Regardless, I am continuing to think more about flavor as well as process, so may use the new year to explore more with existing and new recipes. I mentioned the possibility of a barrel program in the context of my two keeping beers. At a minimum I will spend some time in 2018 to finally figure out how I would manage that at the home brewery scale, whether I decide to start that this coming year or the year after.


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