Monday, August 22, 2011

Down On The Farm: Weyerbacher Hop Harvest

This little beer world of ours is pretty small sometimes. On occasion I have a run in or get to do something that is pretty cool and gets my little beer geek heart a thumping. I had one of these experiences last weekend when, thanks to an invite from Philly Beer Scene, I was lucky enough to help the fine folks of Easton's Weyerbacher Brewing Company with their 2011 hop harvest.

I arrived at the farm of Weyerbacher's founders, Dan and Sue Weirback, bright and early like a kid on the first day of school. There was already a small group of other helpers there when I arrived, they were just starting to cut down the first line of hop bines. The Weirbacks had planted 9 lines of Cascade hops for this year's Harvest Ale, there were some Nugget hops planted but apparently didn't make it to harvest. Once the first line of bines had been cut down we headed back to towards the house to get to work. First the bines had to be stripped of the hop cones and then they would sorted through, removing all of the leaves and twigs. My buddy Steve arrived a bit later, ready to work for a few hours before he had to head back to his real job. We were both in awe in the presence of so many fresh hops. I had seen plenty of hops at breweries and even some homegrown batches at friends' house but never in this kind of volume. It was really amazing, I was in heaven.

Stripping the bines is a pretty thankless job. We would hang the bines from a tree and basically run down them with a closed fist to get all the cones off which sounds pretty simple but the piles of the bines never really seemed to decrease. I much more preferred sorting through the hops. Once the strippers had enough hops to fill a trash can they would dump the hops out onto a table and groups of 5 or so would sit there and comb through the pile, picking out any extra bits that they didn't want going into the brewhouse.

Apparently I had a pretty good stripping technique though because every time I took a break from that to help the sorters, Dan would come over and ask me help them out a bit more. Oh well.

Luckily Dan and Sue were generous enough to offer us all the Autumn Fest we wanted. There seemed to be an endless line of sixtels brought outside for us workers to enjoy, even Dan's personal tap inside the kitchen was up for grabs. I'm sure that there was conscious decision made to only offer Autumn Fest for the day because if they had been pouring any other Weyerbacher brew that had a bit of a higher ABV I don't think much work would have gotten done. There was however a very special treat brought out around lunch, bottles of their not yet released Flemish Sour Red Ale Rapture. I was more than excited to be getting pours from these unlabeled bottles at the house of the owner of one of my favorite breweries, a memorable beer geek moment. They're not quite sure what they will be doing with this one since it is too limited a batch to really distribute but it sounds like it will be available at the brewery at some point. If you're in the Easton area I would highly recommend getting your hands on a bottle or two because they have definitely hit the mark.

We slowly lost workers as the day went on. The rain came and went but the dedicated folks of the bunch held out until every damn hop had been picked and bagged. By the end of the day we were all exhausted and quite anxious to get through the last batch. At some point towards the end of the harvest my body decided to turn against itself as I became quite allergic, unable to stop myself from tearing up and sneezing. I'm sure the rain didn't help. Eventually we did it. Every last bine was stripped, hops sorted out, the sacks were filled and piled on the porch. I don't remember how many sacks we filled but I can assure you it was a lot. I'm anxious to hear how many pounds of hops end up being used for the Harvest Ale, the fresh hops were only being used for flavor and aroma since the IBU's couldn't be calculated in time. By now the batches have been brewed and are awaiting bottling, eventually coming out sometime in September. You can rest assured that I'll most definitely be picking myself up a case when it does.

I was so thankful to be there for this enlightening experience, it was wonderful to see just how much work goes into a beer like this. Weyerbacher can call this one a true hand-crafted ale, anyone who argues that can come talk to me. Not surprisingly, there were some characters from the Hulmeville in attendance but I also met some new people who I hope to see again. Dan and Sue were the perfect hosts, they were even kind enough to send everyone home with their own case of beer, a bag full of fresh hops, and I even got to leave with a bottle of Rapture which I will have a hard time finding an appropriate time to open.

Even though I could barely breath or keep my eyes dry the rest of the day, I can't regret going. I got to play with hops from 9 am until 7 pm...I think I've had a dream like that before. When I woke up the next day my forearms were covered in itchy bumps and scratches that didn't go away for days but that was a small price to pay in my opinion. Unfortunately this might be the last year Weyerbacher grows their own hops at this scale just because of how labor intensive it ends up being so I was even more glad I had the opportunity to help out this year. A big thank you to Mat from Philly Beer Scene and the Weirbacks for having me.

If you find the 2011 Harvest Ale in your glass you can now fully appreciate how much tender, love, and care went into bringing you that hoppy goodness.


Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Adventures in Homebrewing: Maple Bacon Smoked Porter Brewday

It's strange to be thinking and brewing in preparation for the quickly approaching colder months but it must be done. Last year I waited until it was actually Fall to brew my Blazing Pumpkin Ale (I still have some that I'm excited to try after a year) which wasn't at it's prime until months later. Hopefully by brewing this dark and smokey brew in the dog days of Summer it will be good and ready by the time those crisp Autumn nights come around and demand such a beer.

The brewday for my not yet named Maple Bacon Smoked Porter was quite normal, the strange stuff won't happen until I add the bacon and maple syrup to the secondary. That's when I'll be nervous. The only set-back here was that I was missing a bag to steep my grains. I was used to Joe at Princeton Homebrew automatically putting the cracked grains in a steeping bag without even asking. When I went to get everything ready to brew I realized that the grains were just in a plastic bag so I had to improvise. One of the benefits of living at home is having a few pairs of nylon stockings somewhere in the house which work just as well to steep the grains!

Steeping the grains for 30 minutes or so I cracked open a bottle of my Front Porch Pale Ale while enjoying the fantastic aroma of the smoked malts. It was almost like lighting a campfire right there in the kitchen, who doesn't love that smell?

Everything else went along with little to note. I ended up with an OG of 1.045, a bit lower than expected but nothing that I'm concerned about. I was surprised by just how rapidly my yeast started going to work and how aggressive it began fermenting. Within 12 hours it was reeking havoc in my carboy, probably the most forceful fermentation I've seen in my own brew. Let's just say that the blow-off tube was a good choice this time around.

I'll be racking and adding the bacon soon along with a cup or so of pure maple syrup that I will be picking up from a local farmer's market. Let's hope the addition of the bacon doesn't ruin this batch!


Wednesday, August 10, 2011

HOPZ: A Cigar For All Your Drinking Needs

The latest issue of Philly Beer Scene hit the streets last week and while I was thrilled to see my own  Drachent√∂ter Dunkelweizen recipe in the Homebrewer's Corner, I was even more excited by the "Not Beer" feature on HOPZ cigars.

At first glance I said to myself, "There's no way these cigars are made with hops." After actually reading the article I was pleased as punch to be wrong, that these HOPZ Craft Beer Cigars from Ted's Cigars are in fact seasoned with a helping of Centennial hops. The idea seems too good to be true and I couldn't believe it hadn't been done on a large scale before. I know there is quite the niche group of craft beer drinkers who enthusiastically pair their favorite beers with a complimenting cigar, just like cheese pairings. Now I don't claim to be any sort of cigar aficionado by any stretch of the imagination but do enjoy them from time to time. This marriage of hop and cigar was irresistible to me so I set out to find a shop that carried HOPZ and after 10 or so phone calls I found my prize at Tobacco Leaf in Lawrenceville, NJ...conveniently located just a short walk from a Joe Canal's.

Once I got back home I scoured my stash a big IPA with some Centennial in it. After a bit of research which included calling Sierra Nevada's taproom to ask about their Estate hops, I realized that Firestone Walker's Double Jack fit the bill perfectly with Centennial used late in the boil as well as part of the dry hop. And so I was poised for an epic pairing.

My oh so understanding girlfriend was well aware of the gravity of the situation and conceded to an evening of porch drinking while I geeked out over the night's festivities. I picked up a bottle of Spire Mountain's Dark & Dry Cider for her, got the perfect summer night playlist going, settled into the rocking chair, and then got out my cigar.

This baby smelled fresh. The hop presence was most definitely there, adding to the wonderful and earthy roasted aroma. I usually find Centennials to be a bit more citrusy but the pine aspects really stood out here. The ceremonial first drag was shockingly smooth, I was expecting it to be much more harsh and intense given the circumstances. The cigar had a pleasantly subdued sweetness to it to compliment the floral and woody flavors. Just like a good beer, this cigar was really well balanced and did not go overboard with the hops in order to make a point or appease the beer geeks out there.

I figured pairing this with such a fine DIPA like Double Jack could only enhance every aspect of each product. This beer has a big aroma, fresh and grassy with a pretty heavy helping of oranges and pine. There's just a bit of a sweet note that comes through, mainly the aroma just prepares you to be hopped up. It is a fine looking pour, clean white sticky head and a really clear orange-amber body. The taste is a little breadier than you would think given the nose but obviously the grapefruity and bitter orange peel kind of hoppiness dominates here. A spicier note of pine along with a bit of warmth from the alcohol accompany the citrus and end up with a really dry finish that leaves you wanting more. The cigar really did enhance the beer, the spicier flavors of each worked wonders together and the beer's more aggressive citrus characters helped bring out the hops of the cigar itself.  This was the first time I really sat there and thought about a cigar while I smoked it and now I can see how people could fall in love with these sorts of pairings. It was definitely an experience that I hope any lover of big IPA's can indulge in because it not only makes you appreciate what's in your glass but it is also an easy transition into another affordable luxury.

From what I've gathered from talking to different shop owners, supply on these puppies is pretty limited but Ted's is trying to boost production so I would assume that they will be a little more readily available in the near future. For now you can order your own HOPZ on their website along with some swag or any number of their other intriguing cigars, the Maker's Mark may be next on my list.


Thursday, August 4, 2011

Adventures in Homebrewing: Maple Bacon Smoked Porter

I'm always up for visiting a new homebrew shop...especially when I have a gift card. Part of the prize for winning the homebrew contest at The Draught Horse during Philly Beer Week was a $100 gift certificate for Wine, Barley, & Hops in Feasterville, PA and seeing how I'm all ready for my next batch I figured I would swing by on my way home from work. The store is small but well stocked and organized, a little more put together than my usual Princeton Homebrew but lacks the character of Joe's shop in Trenton...not that that matters. The shop is run by Paul Romanowsky and his wife Liz, I didn't get to meet Paul's better half but he was quite helpful with everything and was enthusiastic about fine tuning my recipe without wanting to change the whole thing which isn't a good trait of a homebrew shop owner.

Although I'm still trying to stretch out summer for as long as I can, a brewer must plan ahead and know that those crisp Autumn nights are right around the corner. Fall also marks my favorite camping season and the annual Mancation, a weekend of camping in the woods, BBQ, bacon, and of course beer. I decided I wanted to brew beer for this year's trip, something to have with a Mountain Man Breakfast or sitting around the campfire at night. After combining all of those elements into a beer I came up a recipe for a Maple Bacon Smoked Porter and am already drooling at the possible outcome.

Specialty Grains
1 lb - Crystal 80L
1 lb - Chocolate Malt
1/2 lb - Black Patent
1/2 lb - Smoked Rauch Malt
6.6 lb - Briess Amber LME
1 oz - Northern Brewer (60 min)
1 oz - Fuggles (15 min)
White Labs WLP001 - California Ale
8 oz - Pure Maple Syrup (secondary)
5-10 oz - Crispy Bacon (secondary)

The cracked smoke malt smells fantastic already so I'm hoping to the bacon will only add to that but not be too overpowering, I still want this to be enjoyable and not just for the sake of bacon. I think I will also try using some of the maple syrup as my priming sugar. I've still got plenty of reading to do on the bacon so I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to be using it but as of right now my plan is to cook it in the oven until it is crispy but not burnt. Then I'll get it as dry as possible, removing any fat and grease before putting the bits into a nylon bag as if I were dry-hopping. I'm a little nervous about introducing meat to the beer in the secondary but the way I see it, the possible reward is worth the risk.

If you have any experience with brewing with bacon and/or maple syrup please let me know what you think of the method I'm planning on using. Any tips from experience is always appreciated, hoping to brew this one within a couple days.