Lapsang Souchong Tea

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Rounding out the teas I sampled during my temporary hiatus from beer is this Lapsang Souchong tea. After my little peat smoked Scotch adventure this past weekend, I decided to keep the smoky theme going and try this smoked tea. Lapsang Souchong is a black tea that is dried over a pinewood fire. I don't know much about the structure of tea plants, but apparently "Souchong" refers to the less potent (and thus less desirable) leaves of the tea plant. The smoke is an attempt to whip these leaves into shape and make them more complex. This style originated in China, but this particular tea comes from Taiwan (and is supposed to be slightly more smoky than typical Chinese varieties).

Formosa Lapsang Souchong - A pretty golden brown color in the cup, a little bit of sediment from the loose tea. Smells like a campfire, smoke and wood, maybe even a hint of meatiness, but nothing dramatic. While my intention was to match this with the peaty Scotches I was sampling last weekend, I should note that the smoke here is quite distinct - which makes sense, given that they use pine to dry the tea and peat moss for the Scotch. The taste is surprisingly mellow given the smoke. It's there, but nowhere near as overwhelming as it is in something like an Islay Scotch or Rauchbier. Instead, we get a sorta woody black tea character that suits this well. Mouthfeel is big and robust, again like your typical black tea. Overall, this is an interesting tea, not at all like Scotch, but it works really well on its own.

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for 8 ounce cup, steeped for 5 minutes at 212°.

Beer Nerd Musings: I've mentioned that tea is sometimes used in making beer, and Lapsang Souchong seems to be a mildly popular variety. I've not had any, but I certainly wouldn't mind trying the Italian Baladin X-Fumé or Kentucky's Against the Grain Bo & Luke (both of these are variants on a base beer as well, so there'd be other treatments as well). From my admittedly limited sample, I'd think this would be a nice, mellow alternative to big helpings of smoked malt. Rauchbiers and the link sometimes make me wonder who put their cigar out in my beer, but I get the impression that a beer made with Lapsang Souchong would provide a more mellow smoky character.

So this wraps up my 40ish day whirlwind tour of exotic beverages. My triumphant return to beer starts this weekend, so beer blogging will resume as normal next week. I'm breaking out a couple of wales for the weekend, so stay tuned!

Peaty Double Feature

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The number of whisk(e)y reviews in the past few weeks may have given you the wrong idea about how much spirits I really drink. In reality, it takes me forever to get through a bottle, even one I really like. As such, it took me a while to realize that I'm something of a peat freak. I get the impression that people who recommend stuff for newbs don't really go overboard with peat, which is probably advisable, but after a slow ramping up, I realized that I really enjoy me some peat and smoke in my scotch. It started with the faint hints in Highland Park 12, caught a bit more peat smoke with Talisker 10, and culminated in Ardbeg 10, at which point I realized that I should just stop worrying and embrace the peat. This past weekend, I cracked two peaty Scotches and compared notes. There's a lot to go over for these two, but stick with me, it'll be fun:

Compass Box The Peat Monster - The Scotch nerd community seems to be mostly about Single Malt Scotches, yet they represent some stupid-low segment of the market (something like 5%, kinda like craft beer). The grand majority of Scotch that is sold in the world are called "Blended Malts", and they don't have the greatest reputation. Johnny Walker certainly makes some well respected, older-aged bottles, though even they get poo-pooed. The likes of J&B and Cutty Sark don't do blends any favors though, and taste a little like gasoline. Here at Kaedrin, we're big tent kinda people, so I thought it might be nice to go after a "good" blend, and in today's market, that seems to be Compass Box. I was in the market for a new peaty bottle, and this sucker has a great reputation. The guy behind Compass Box, John Glaser, is a longtime member of the industry and got his start by blending bottles from his bar to see what kinda weird stuff he could create (this great interview gives more background on this, amongst other topics). He's gotten into some trouble by adding adjuncts to some of his more adventurous blends (coming from the rough and tumble craft beer world, where a recent local brewery just released a beer made with goat brains, the prospect of having some orange or spice added to my whisky doesn't really frighten me - not that Peat Monster has any adjuncts). The blended components seem to be something of a secret, though they do appear to be Islay malts (see below for a little more on Islay). As an added bonus, check out that label. Perhaps not as "classy" as most Scotch labels, but it's really well designed nonetheless:

Compass Box The Peat Monster

I'm always surprised by how light these smokey, peaty monsters can be - this is a clear, very light yellow color. The nose is very nice, with the obvious smokey peat aroma being the most prominent, but also an underlying sweetness that indicates balance. The taste bears that out, with a big malt presence up front, maybe some oak and vanilla, and that intense peaty smoke coming through strong towards the finish. Mouthfeel is medium bodied, a nice oiliness to it that helps coat the mouth, and plenty of booze. Overall, this is a very nice, very balanced peat smoked whisky. Despite the name, this is an approachable dram of peat smoked whisky, and pretty easy drinking too... I'd say more intense than Talisker, but not quite at the Ardbeg levels...

Whisky Nerd Details: 46% ABV bottle (750 ml, just opened recently). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 4/12/14.

Ardbeg Uigeadail - I've already mentioned Ardbeg 10, which is my favorite Islay whisky (which isn't to say that I've had a ton of them, but still). To a newbie the whole Scotch region game can be tough to figure out, but Islay is the easy one - they tend to be intensely smoky and peaty, moreso than any other region. Why is that? As per usual, the historical origin is a tale of necessity, rather than a specific desire for peat smoke. Islay is an island with no trees, so they had no wood to fire their kilns and malt their barley. Thus they relied on what they had: peat. This imbued the malt with a distinctive smokey flavor, which many have grown to love. A tradition born of necessity. This bottle adds to the normal Ardbeg style another component, one not typical in peated Scotches (see Jacob's Venn diagram for an illustration) - it is also partially finished in Sherry casks. It's also a higher-proof offering than the standard Ardbeg 10, and while it has no age statement, I can't imagine this being too young...

Ardbeg Uigeadail

Definitely a darker pour here (than Peat Monster, but also of Ardbeg 10), more on the golden orange side of things. Nose is definitely more complex, hitting with that classic Ardbeg peat smoke, but also something else, presumably that sherry influence. People often talk about smoked malt as having meaty characteristics, which in my experience is actually rare, but this Uigeadail definitely has something like that going on in the nose. The taste hits on that peat smoke and tar, but future sips yield some oak and vanilla, and sometimes an almost fruity malt note (or maybe that sherry again). Mouthfeel is full bodied, rich, and oily. Definitely a hotter alcohol component here, but still approachable. Overall, this is really spectacular and complex. On the other hand, I think I might prefer straight up Ardbeg 10, though this is a really nice riff on the same style.

Whisky Nerd Details: 54.2% ABV bottle (750 ml, nearing the bottom). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 4/12/14. Bottle Code: L11 284 14:57 6ML (basically, it's a late 2011 bottle - see full breakdown of bottle codes here)

Beer Nerd Musings: One of the most surprising beers I've ever had was Yeastie Boys' Rex Attitude, a mostly unassuming recipe... except that it's made with 100% peated malt. This sounds like a ludicrous idea, but it works way more than you might think. If you're a peat freak and you have the opportunity to try this beer, give it a shot, I bet you'd enjoy it (alas, Yeastie Boys is a rather small contract brewing operation in New Zealand, so their beer can be hard to come by...) There's also an imperialized version known as XeRRex that I'm certainly going to keep an eye out for. In terms of barrel aged brews, Islay barrels are a bit of a mixed bag, and to my mind, often overwhelm the base beer with their smoky, boozy intensity. Some are drinkable, but none seem to approach the exalted heights of the top tier bourbon barrels, or even Ola Dubh beers aged in Highland Park casks...

So there you have it. Up next in the peated Scotch realm, if I can find it, will be Ardbeg Corryvreckan, which combines Ardbeg's typical peat smoke with new oak (typically Single Malt Scotch is aged in old Bourbon barrels)... In other news, we're really in the homestretch now, one more non-beer entry on Thursday (for tea), then we return to beer blogging with a vengeance. Looking forward to it!

Balvenie 15

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Coming down the homestretch, only one more week until I start blogging about beer again. I don't know about you, but I feel that these past 5-6 weeks have been a worthwhile (if temporary) interruption in my obsession with beer. Ironically, I've been writing more during this non-beer period than I normally do. This is not unexpected, as one of the points of this exercise was to learn more about other drinks, and seeing as though I've displayed varying levels of experience in the worlds of bourbon, wine, port, tea, and Scotch, I've got a lot of ground to cover. One of the primary reasons I blog is to learn, and surprise, I've got a lot to learn in those other subjects.

But I digress. This week, I'll be covering a few Scotches. Today, we cover what may be my all-time favorite spirit (most definitely my favorite Scotch), The Balvenie 15. As luck would have it, I've already told the story about how I came to acquire this prized bottle and what makes it so special to me. In brief, I won the bottle in a charity auction, didn't want to waste it on an unrefined palate, so I held on to it for a while while I sampled some other Scotches. Eventually, I cracked it open and lo, it was good. As I've continued to explore the world of whisk(e)y, I've consistently come back to this bottle, and been very impressed. One other notable aspect of this particular bottle is that even though it's marketed as a 15 year old Scotch, if you look at the dates on the bottle, you'll see that it's actually 18 years old. It's a single barrel offering, so most are probably closer to that 15 year date, but I guess I got lucky. According to this interview, this is something that still happens from time to time, though I imagine the whole whisky boom we're seeing right now has cut into that a bit.

At this point, it's been about 4 years since I opened it, and it's definitely showing its age (in a bad way), but I've only got a few drams left in the bottle. I was trying to save it, but it seems that oxidation impacts even the high octane spirits. That being said, the notes below incorporate some notes I've taken a few times in the past, so I'm hoping it'll still be a good view:

The Balvenie 15

Balvenie 15 - Pours a gorgeous clear golden color. The nose has a nice sweetness to it, almost fruity, and a nice vanilla and oak component that always revs me up. The taste has a nice honey and oak feel to it, sweet and rich, but also faint hints of spice (maybe even smoke, but you reallly need to look for that and my mind may be playing tricks). Lots of complexity, and the finish lasts for quite a bit. The mouthfeel is smooth, oily, almost creamy. It coats your mouth and doesn't let go. It's obviously boozy, but it goes down very easy, little to no alcohol burn, though you can get a nice warming sensation in your belly. Overall, this is a spectacular whisky, though I suppose the caveat is that I'm probably a bit biased. Still, it remains among my favorite whiskys ever, and well worth seeking out.

Whisky Nerd Details: 47.8% ABV bottle (750 ml). Drank out of a glencairn glass. Bottling Date: 14.5.08. In Cask Date: 17.5.90. Cask Number: 8300. Bottle Number: 150.

Beer Nerd Musings: My experience with Scotch barrel aged beers is somewhat mixed, but I suspect that Balvenie barrels would be damn near ideal for this task. Alas, I've not heard of much in the way of beer aged in Balvenie barrels. My staff's exhaustive research (i.e. 5 minutes of googling) has uncovered this Iowa beer from Court Avenue, a stout aged on Balvenie Double Wood wood. Double Wood, by the way, is probably the easiest Balvenie to come by, and it's definitely a fine dram (I've only tried it once, but it was nice). Anyway, the way that beer phrased their description makes me think the barrel was dismantled or something. Also, the beer is a stout, but it's only 4.6% ABV, which is not usually conducive to great barrel aged beers. Also, it only has one review, so it was probably a one off. Anywho, I do think the idea of Balvenie barrel aged beer could be fruitful, if any enterprising brewer would take that on...

Balvenie will always hold a special place in my heart, and probably in my liquor cabinet as well.

Silver Needle White Tea

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So far, we've conquered the world of Black and Green teas. And by "conquered", I mean, I drank a cup of each. However, with each of those, I at least had some frame of reference, having sampled various bag teas and whatnot. Hardly impressive, but at least I had a general idea of what to expect with those two. Today, we tackle White Tea, something I've never had before.

At Kaedrin beverage compatriot Padraic's suggestion, I took a flier on a sample packet of Chinese Silver Needle White Tea. He describes this tea as "astonishing, but also astonishingly expensive", and he is correct, though $5 for the sample packet was certainly not a strain (but then, I'm a guy who buys obscenely priced barrel aged beers on the reg, so my priorities are clearly problematic). This being my first white tea, I have no idea what I'm talking about, so I'll let Padraic explain:

While Darjeeling is commonly referred to as the "Champagne of teas," I've always felt quality white tea should really be granted that status...it's smoother, cleaner, and simply more elegant than Darjeeling. White tea is almost exclusively Chinese, and is the least processed of any type of tea. For example, black teas are picked, bruised to expose the essential oils, then allowed to oxidize (a process that is frequently and incorrectly called "fermentation." Actual fermented tea is called Pu-erh, and is a story for another day.) Green tea is picked, allowed to wilt, and then usually heated to halt any further oxidation. White tea is picked and allowed to wilt, then dried to halt oxidation, sometimes in steam, but in the highest quality teas, in nothing more than direct sunlight. The resulting leaves are minimally processed, and brew up a liquor that is fresh and clean, often with lots of natural sweetness and floral notes. Perhaps not surprisingly, white tea is often the priciest of teas, due to a limited harvesting window and non-mechanized processing.
So Darjeeling is like Miller High Life, and White Tea is like Gueuze (the true Champagne of beers, excepting that hybrid style thing)? Good to know.

Now that I have a reference point, I'll say that I found this reminiscent of green tea, though clearly distinct in a number of ways. I greatly enjoyed it, and even managed to take a picture of the leaves, because maybe I'm not as horrible as I thought.

Silver Needle White Tea

Silver Needle Organic White Tea - Pretty much clear in the cup, almost no color at all but there is a very light yellowish tint. The smell has a resemblance to the green tea I had, vegetal and grassy, though those notes are not as domineering or pungent as they were in green tea. This is more delicate and has a better note of sweetness to it, almost flowery. Very mellow and clean, with a subtle grassy flavor that lingers in the finish. Mouthfeel is clean and bright, very delicate feel. Overall, this is a really nice cup of tea. I wouldn't say that I was astonished, but I'm really happy I tried it, and I'll be happy to have another cup or two this weekend.

Tea Nerd Details: 1.5 tsp in 8 ounce cup, infused at 180° for 3 minutes.

Beer Nerd Musings: I've got surprisingly little here, as I've already gone over the Champaign of beers schtick above. There are some beers that are brewed with white tea, though I have not had any of them, and none seem as well regarded as Magic Ghost. I would worry about the delicate nature of this white tea being overwhelmed by the beer in some way, though some white teas are supposedly more robust and thus may stand up better to the treatment.

So that just about covers it for Tea™. This upcoming weekend is going to be mostly Scotch drinking, though I do have one tea left (that will hopefully dovetail with some of the Scotch I'm going to drink). See you Monday, with a review of Balvenie 15, perhaps the best whisky I've ever had.

Japanese Sencha Yamato Green Tea

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Tea™ madness continues with this Japanese Green Tea. The word Sencha translates to "simmered tea", an obvious reference to the process of steeping dried tea leaves in hot water. The stands in opposition to some other treatments, such as Matcha, in which the tea is milled into a fine powder (and it is simply mixed in with the hot water, meaning that you actually drink the leaf itself). There are other Japanese green teas, such as Gyokuro and Bancha, but Sencha is the most popular tea in Japan. I picked this particular variety because I wanted to try a green tea and the name reminded me of Star Blazers. I've had green tea before, but most often I've had a chai green tea, which is actually quite a nice treatment. But I wanted to choose something straight green, just to get a better feel for this, so here we are:

Japanese Sencha Special Grade Yamato Green Tea - A very light green, almost yellowish color in the cup. Lots of sediment appears to have escaped the confines of my infuser here(these leaves definitely seem more fragile like that), but it quickly settled to the bottom of the cup so no real harm there. Smell is full of leafy, grassy, and vegetal aromas. Taste is somewhat more subdued, but those grassy, vegetal notes are coming through. Mouthfeel comes across as light and clean, with a smooth finish. Overall, this is nice and I'm definitely looking forward to more of it, but those vegetal flavors may take some getting used to.

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for an 8 ounce cup, infused at 175° for 2 minutes.

Beer Nerd Musings: Oddly enough, I've actually had a beer made with green tea (I'm guessing it was the matcha variety, actually), and it was shockingly harmonious and absolutely delicious. Fantôme Magic Ghost is well worth seeking out, as that funky, farmhouse Brett yeast matches surprisingly well with the earthy green tea notes. It also looks like Ecto Cooler, which is weird and awesome at the same time. There have been other beers made with green tea, but they seem to be more limited affairs and not quite as well regarded as Fantôme's wacky foray into brewing with tea (I have not had either of the linked beers).

So now that I've conquered the world of Green Tea (one example is enough, right?), we will move on to some White Tea on Thursday. Stay tuned.

Single Estate Assam Mangalam Tea

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Alright folks, stay frosty, I know this is a beer blog and yes, I've been writing an awful lot about beverages that are not beer. What's even more disturbing, I seem to be veering away from alcoholic beverages altogether. Last week, I reviewed a Coke for crying out loud! Fear not, dear reader, as this is but a temporary situation. I will be back to writing about beer in a just a couple weeks. I am very much looking forward to it, but for now, we turn our frightful gaze upon tea.

I have mentioned that I'm not partial to coffee so often on this blog that even I'm tired of hearing about it, so I won't belabor the notion, but I will say that when in need of a jolt of the caffeinated variety, I typically look to tea. Up until now, this generally meant the little prepackaged bags of tea you can get at any supermarket. As I understand it, bag tea gets the job done, but is made from low quality tea-crumbs and fannings. To use a crude and probably incorrect analogy, bag tea is the hot dog to good tea's ribeye steak. Or something like that.

As you can no doubt tell, I'm a novice in the tea world, but I'm fortunate to have a friendly guide in Kaedrin beverage compatriot Padraic (he is a big fan of beer as well, and has also provided recommendations in that realm as well as bourbon and Scotch, a true renaissance man). When I mentioned that I'd be cheating on beer with other beverages for a while, Padraic dropped some knowledge on me in the comments (he also has a... seldom updated tea blog that is worth checking out). Based on his recommendations, I put in an order for a bunch of samples from Upton Teas. They even thoughtfully included a bonus sample packet of Season's Pick Assam GFOP, which was mighty kind of them.

Assam is a region in northeast India that lies at low elevation and gets high amounts of rainfall, resulting in larger tea leaves and higher yields. Apparently, the prolific Assam plantations played a big role in making tea a universal treat in Britain, not just something for the upper class. What we have here is a Single Estate Assam, meaning that it comes from only one plantation. If you look closely at something like, say, Irish Breakfast Tea, you will see a blend of black teas (usually Assams). So think of this Single Estate business like a Single Malt Scotch, which is usually more distinctive and flavorful than the blend, but also a bit more expensive. I neglected to take any pictures because I'm a terrible person. But I did take copious notes, because I'm not that terrible (or maybe because I am, if you're one of those I hate tasting notes kinda person).

Single Estate Assam FTGFOP1 Mangalam Tea - Dark brown color with maybe a hint of amber in the cup (hard to tell, as I'm not used to judging color against the dark color of the cup I have here). And now my senses fail me, because this smells an awful lot like black tea. Super perceptive of me, yes? I like the aroma, but that's not saying much, I know. The taste is where things are starting to play out for me here. People often describe these sorts of teas as having a malty flavor, and yes, I'm definitely getting that here. In fact, I drank this cup of tea just a couple hours before I made my barleywine and yes, while steeping my specialty grains, I most definitely got some black tea vibes. There is a natural sweetness to it, but towards the finish I'm getting a hint of bitterness (which, I believe, means I may have let it steep for a bit too long - but then, as a beer guy, I don't really shy away from bitterness). It's got a well balanced assertiveness here, it reminds me a bit of a breakfast tea, but I don't really know - maybe most straight black teas would taste that way for me right now. Mouthfeel is big and chewy, a little intense, but a nice pick-me-up on this fine morning. Overall, I'm really enjoying this, though I'm again finding myself hesitant to actually rate these. I like this better than the Season's Pick Assam though, if that matters...

Tea Nerd Details: 1 tsp for 8 ounce cup, infused at 200° for 4-5 minutes.

Beer Nerd Musings: As mentioned above, I drank the above just before a homebrew session and definitely saw why tea nerds describe these Assam teas as being "malty", especially at the beginning of the extract brew process when I'm steeping specialty grains (once the hops are added, things get a little different, of course). While not common, tea can also be used as an ingredient in beer. Dogfish Head makes a beer called Sah'tea, which is their weird take on a Sahti style with black tea added. It is a fine beer, if a bit on the weird side. Also, believe it or not, I actually made a beer with Earl Grey Tea once. The goal was more to get the Bergamot citrus flavor rather than the tea, but I did infuse a few bags of Double Earl Grey, and I got feedback that it did have a tealike feel to it, so there is that.

So there, I really enjoyed this tea, and look forward to finishing off my little sample package (which, honestly, should last quite a while, as I don't drink that much tea... this past weekend excepted, of course). Stay tuned for a look at a Green Tea and a White Tea later this week. Next weekend will be about Scotch, but I've also saved a particular tea for that weekend as well.

A sort of companion to my Russian Imperial Stout (which I named Bomb & Grapnel), this is another beer I'm hoping to clock in at ~10% ABV. As with the RIS, I'm going to brew up a full 5 gallon batch, then split the result into two secondary fermenters. One will simply condition, the other will get an addition of bourbon soaked oak cubes (just like the RIS). At packaging time, I'll bottle some of each, then a blend of the two. With the RIS, the blend actually came out the best, though maybe the bourbon oaked one will hold up better over time (alas, only one way to find out).

For the recipe, I used one of my favorite barleywines as a guide, Firestone Walker's §ucaba. Fortunately for me, Firestone Walker is pretty open with their ingredients. Unfortunately, they're not quite as open with their proportions! So I took a swing, and made some tweaks along the way:

Brew #15: Barleywine
April 5, 2014

0.5 lb. Crystal 40 (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Crystal 120 (specialty grain)
0.5 lb. Munich Malt (specialty grain)
0.25 lb. Chocolate Malt (specialty grain)
9 lb. Briess Golden Light DME
0.75 lb. Turbinado Sugar
2 oz. Bravo hops (bittering @ 15.5% AA)
1 oz. East Kent Golding hops (flavor)
1 oz. East Kent Golding hops (aroma)
2 oz. Oak Cubes: Hungarian Medium Toast
16 oz. Bourbon (Eagle Rare 10)
Wyeast 1028 London Ale

Barleywine Ingredients

I'm shooting for something in the 10-11% ABV range here. Now, §ucaba is 12.5-13.5% ABV, but as I understand it, this is difficult to obtain for mere mortals like myself. Something about the laws of physics not operating the same in Firestone Walker's warehouses? Whatever, the point is that this recipe isn't quite the beast that §ucaba is...

I tried to keep my specialty grains reasonable as well. I think one of the reasons my RIS had such a high FG was that I included too much in the way of unfermentable sugars. So I toned that down here. I also added a small simple sugar addition, which should help keep that attenuation in check. Fingers crossed.

For the hops, it seemed pretty straightforward. Bravo for bittering and East Kent Goldings for late kettle additions, just like §ucaba. This puts the beer firmly in English Barleywine territory. According to my calculations, the IBUs should be somewhere in the 40-50 range, which is actually a little low, even for an English Barleywine, but then, §ucaba clocks in at 42 IBUs, so I'm actually on track.

For the oak cubes, I chose Hungarian Medium Toast (supposedly less intense than American oak, but more intense than French oak) and started soaking them in bourbon a couple months ago. I think one of the issues with the RIS was how long I kept the oak in bourbon, so hopefully the additional time will yield more complexity and less char (among other harsh tannins, etc...) Depending on how this goes, I may also keep this batch in secondary for an extra week as well (so 3 weeks primary, 4 weeks secondary).

Firestone Walker's house yeast is rumored to be similar to Wyeast 1968 (London ESB, same as WLP 002), but that has relatively low attenuation and low alcohol tolerance (which is yet another reason to question the laws of physics at FW). I ended up going with Wyeast 1028, which has a much better attenuation range and one of the higher alcohol tolerances (11%, which should work here). Also, since this is a big beer, I did a yeast starter. I've had trouble making starters in the past because I never took into account how much water is lost to evaporation. This time, I managed to get it almost right. Started with 1250 ml of water and 1/4 cup malt extract, and ended with about 900 ml of 1.042 wort (slightly high, but right around the 1.040 I was shooting for).

On brew day, the Original Gravity ended up at 22.3 Bx or 1.094, slightly lower than I was shooting for, but it should still be fine. I installed a blow off tube instead of the airlock, as I'm anticipating a pretty active fermentation.

So that just about covers it. This one should take a while, so I anticipate doing one more batch of something before the heat of summer makes brewing a bit more difficult. I'll probably do something sessionable that I'll keg, like a 4% pale ale or maybe a light saison for some summer drinking fun. Next up on the big beer front would be a Scotch ale, which may also get the oak treatment described above (though it'll likely also be lower in ABV)...

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Weblog)

The Session #86: Beer Journalism

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session_logo.jpgOn the first Friday of every month, there's a beer blog roundup called The Session. Someone picks a topic, and everyone blogs about it. This time around, Heather Vandenengel wants to talk Beer Journalism:


What role do beer writers play in the culture and growth of craft beer? Are we advocates, critics, or storytellers? What stories are not getting told and what ones would you like to never hear about again? What's your beer media diet? i.e. what publications/blogs/sites do you read to learn about industry? Are all beer journalists subhumans? Is beer journalism a tepid affair and/or a moribund endeavor? And if so, what can be done about it?

A few things occur to me. One is that I rarely seem to read stuff that would formally be called "Beer Journalism". Sure, this is the internet, and so I've serendipitously stumbled upon many a beer article, I suppose, but I've never subscribed to a dead tree publication like BeerAdvocate (and for various reasons, I don't have any plans to reverse that). The grand majority of my beer reading tends to be blogs, and they can be a varied bunch. Common themes seem to be irreverent humor, homebrewing, reviews, even more irreverent humor, and then there's whatever the hell Subby Doo is doing at DDB.

The other thing that occurs to me is that it seems kinda foolish to put writing into a box. Perhaps there are too many "advocates" and cheerleaders in beer writing these days, but if Thomas Pynchon started up a beer advocacy blog, I'd bet all of us would be reading the hell out of that thing. Still, I do think there's a point here. Beer boosterism is fine, but it also leads to certain issues. Like, for instance, the constant hand wringing about the best beers in the world. It can be frustrating to newbs and hype causes some rather obnoxious behavior amongst some folks (this is a general topic that deserves a post of its own). It wouldn't be so bad if everyone didn't choose the same few beers, but if you really love beer, you should seek out the bad with the good. While I've had my share of infamously bad beers, I could probably do better on this front myself.

One of the other things Heather asked us to share in this Session is "a piece of beer writing or media you love". There are many options (and all the folks I linked above are indeed loved), but I'm going to go with the most obscure thing I can think of, which is this classic review of the legendarily bad Samuel Adams Triple Bock, buried in the depths of Beer Advocate (and somehow not deleted by the overzealous mods over there). Who says tasting notes are boring?

True story: While outside, my brother and I poured a little bit of Triple Bock into the bowls of the three dogs who live at my uncle's house. All three dogs, very hungry due to not having eaten since breakfast, ran toward the bowls, then simultaneously retreated by slowly walking backward. They appeared to be concerned that whatever was in there might reward sudden movement by attacking them. Such concerns were probably well-founded.

Truth be told, I strongly recommend Triple Bock to everyone who calls himself a beer connoisseur, just as I recommend "Troll 2" to strangers I pass on the street. There truly is nothing else like it in this world. It deserves every bit of its insidious reputation, and it will take years off your life.

Highly recommended.

I don't really know where to go after that, so I'm going to answer Heather's original questions with some questions of my own, which will hopefully help illuminate something I'd like to see from more beer writing. In this task, I will be drawing upon a raging debate in the world of music and film writing. The whole snafu was set off by this CriticWire Survey that posed a question:

Q: Jazz critic Ted Gioia recently lodged a complaint that "music criticism has degenerated into lifestyle reporting" because most most critics lack a musical background and theoretical tools. Do movie critics need filmmaking experience or an understanding of film theory to do their jobs?

Gioia's original post makes some pretty strong points:

Imagine, for a moment, football commentators who refuse to explain formations and plays. Or a TV cooking show that never mentions the ingredients. Or an expert on cars who refuses to look under the hood of an automobile.

These examples may sound implausible, perhaps ridiculous. But something comparable is happening in the field of music journalism. One can read through a stack of music magazines and never find any in-depth discussion of music. Technical knowledge of the art form has disappeared from its discourse. In short, music criticism has turned into lifestyle reporting.

There might be some hyperbole involved there, but I think you can see where I'm going with this, and the parallels to beer writing are obvious. Do beer writers need brewing experience or an understanding of brewing theory to do their jobs? I'm willing to bet that a lot of respondents to this Session will be talking a lot about how "beer is people" and other such platitudes, and there is certainly a lot of gold to be mined in that realm, but what of the technical aspects of brewing?

I actually think a lot of beer writers have at least tried their hand at brewing. Heck, I'm just some random blogger with a tiny stream of traffic, and even I homebrew and try to tackle some esoteric technical details of the brews I'm brewing and drinking. But I feel like, all too often, we beer bloggers just regurgitate the marketing blurb on the back of the bottle or in the press releases. I'm as guilty as anyone when it comes to stuff like this, even if I do try to do some deeper diving on various subjects from time to time, information is limited. Beer Journalists probably have more access, but do they really get into the nitty gritty details of brewing during, say, an interview? Of course, it's going to be very difficult to make some technical details interesting to a general audience, but it's certainly possible.

Film critic Matt Zoller Seitz was one of the initial respondents to the CriticWire survey, but he later expanded upon his answer:

Movies and television are visual art forms, and aural art forms. They are not just about plot, characterization and theme. Analytical writing about movies and TV should incorporate some discussion of the means by which the plot is advanced, the characters developed, the themes explored. It should devote some space, some small bit of the word count, to the compositions, the cutting, the music, the decor, the lighting, the overall rhythm and mood of the piece.

Otherwise it's all just book reports or political op-eds that happen to be about film and TV. It's literary criticism about visual media. It's only achieving half of its potential, if that. And it's doing nothing to help a viewer understand how a work evokes particular feelings in them as they watch it.

Form is not just an academic side dish to the main course of content. We critics of film and TV have a duty to help viewers understand how form and and content interact, and how content is expressed through form. The film or TV critic who refuses to write about form in any serious way abdicates that duty, and abets visual illiteracy.

It is not necessary for a critic of film or television to have created a work of film or television. But it's never a bad idea to know a little bitty eensy teensy bit about how film and television are made.

Much of this seems pretty obvious to me, but it caused quite a stir amongst the film nerd community. It turns out that if you tell a writer how they should write, they get a little uppity. And that's probably as it should be. Again, it's kinda foolish to put writing into a box.

But I think the general point of this whole debate is worth taking to heart. Beer isn't just about people, it's also about, well, the beer. It helps to know about ingredients and process, and Beer Writers should be internalizing this info and passing it on in easily digestible chunks to the unsuspecting masses. That doesn't mean you shouldn't write about people, but perhaps the balanced approach is best. To all things in moderation, and other cliches. This isn't easy, but that's why you're a beer journalist, right? You don't have to be negative or critical (though there's nothing wrong with that), and you can still be an advocate by stressing the technical. Think about what Neil deGrasse Tyson is attempting with his reboot of Cosmos (or what Carl Sagan already accomplished). I think beer needs people like that. People who understand things and aren't afraid to explain them in laymans terms. And I'm not entirely sure that shows like Brew Masters or BrewDogs really fit that bill (though the latter certainly does better than the former, even if they're still obsessed with gimmickry in the brewing of their beer). You could argue that we've already had our Sagan - Michael Jackson is indeed a giant - but he's sadly no longer with us, and so there's a gaping hold in beer writing. Are you going to fill it?

A Dad's Hat Rye Experiment

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Alrighty then, that's enough with the wussy non-alcoholic beverages for now (we'll return to wuss territory next week). Let's jump on the Rye Whiskey bandwagon. Before the dark days of prohibition, American Whiskey usually meant rye, and Pennsylvania was a rye powerhouse. You may have heard terms like Monongahela Style rye, or Rittenhouse rye, both of which are named for various regions in PA. Alas, prohibition came and went, eventually wiping out the PA distillers. Some brands, like the aforementioned Rittenhouse rye or Old Overholt, stuck around but moved operations to Kentucky (along with all the other whiskey producers). However, the current boom in whiskey is generating enough interest to revive some old traditions.

Enter Dad's Hat Rye, a young "craft" distillery located in Bristol, PA (not far from Kaedrin HQ, and if I'm not mistaken, it's very close to Neshaminy Creek Brewing). As a beer nerd, "craft" is a loaded term and it thus may give you the wrong idea about craft distilling. Making great Bourbon and Rye is an expensive and time-consuming proposition, which is why most of the great whiskey is coming from giant corporations. If you have a small operation and want to compete with great 10 year old whiskeys and the like, it's going to be costly (what do you sell during those 10 years?). That's why so many craft distillers supplement their income with other spirits like Gin, because they're waiting for their whiskey to mature. There's a whole bunch of tricks for this, like using smaller barrels (greater surface area theoretically means less time needed in the barrel, though I believe that is disputed by some) or finishing in other spirits barrels. I'm greatly simplifying, of course, and this isn't meant as a total insult either. From what I gather, there are a number of well respected craft distillers in the country, some of whom have been around for quite a while and are putting out great stuff. But they tend to be a lot more expensive than their corporate brethren, which makes things a bit tough.

Dad's Hat is a relatively new operation, but they seem intent on bringing rye back to PA, which is mighty nice of them. Their current flagship is a 90 proof rye made in the PA style. Near as I can tell, many of the Kentucky rye producers tend to have close to the minimum of 51% rye in their recipe, leading to rye that tastes rather similar to Bourbon (at least, to my untrained and inexperienced rye palate). Not so with Dad's Hat, who has a mash bill of 80% rye, 15% malted barley, and 5% malted rye. The current flagship is aged for at least 6 months in charred quarter casks (there's that smaller barrel I mentioned earlier). They have plans to release older, more mature whiskey down the line, and they've also released specialty bottles of their flagship rye finished in Vermouth barrels or Port barrels.

Now, I have some of the flagship here and I decided to play mad scientist and experiment on a portion of this precious juice. If you'll recall, I brewed a rather large Imperial Stout last year, and I aged that on medium char oak cubes that had been soaking in bourbon for a few weeks. Once I bottled the beer, I had to do something with the leftover beer and bourbon saturated cubes, so I chucked them back into a mason jar with a few ounces of Dad's Hat Rye. I have no idea if this will work or not. These are third use oak cubes and there was certainly some stout that made its way into the mixture, and you can see how it darkened the juice. But how did it taste?

Dads Hat Rye Whiskey and a mad scientist variant

Dad's Hat Rye - Pours a clear golden yellow color. The smell is pure, unadulterated rye, more like rye bread than a spicy rye and floral too. Not at all like bourbon or typical ryes, like Rittenhouse or something. The taste follows the nose, with lots of bready rye notes, some floral notes but also a hint of spice, not to mention some alcohol heat. Mouthfeel is smooth, light, and again not a lot of spicy feel. Overall, it's a really fascinating dram and worth a try to see what rye is all about. Of course, I have almost no frame of reference for this, so take my thoughts here with a gigantic boulder of salt.

Whiskey Nerd Details: 90 proof, 45% ABV bottled (750 ml). Drank out of a Glencairn glass on 3/29/14.

Dad's Hat Rye, Aged on Third Use Bourbon/Beer Oak - Pours a much darker color (almost certainly caused by the beer, though it's possible that the oak contributed something as well), a slightly cloudy amber orange color (the cloudiness is almost certainly dead yeast from the beer). That unadulterated rye character is still coming through strong, but the oak and beer seem to have added a lot of complexity, some sweet caramel, oak, and vanilla, and what's more, it's pretty well integrated. A little rough around the edges, for sure, but way better than I was expecting given the "production environment" or whatever you want to call my kitchen. The taste once again emphasizes that rye, but the beer is clearly adding some sweetness to the party, with a little oak and vanilla, maybe even some char from the oak. The mouthfeel is actually smoother, though it comes off as being a bit heavier (not entirely unexpected, as the stout did finish with a rather high FG). Overall, this was actually a very worthy experiment that I may need to repeat. It also perhaps bodes well for Dad's Hat's future efforts... or not! I have no idea what I'm doing here, so get yourself another one of those gigantic boulders of salt.

Whiskey Nerd Details: Same as above, but aged on oak cubes that had previously soaked in Evan Williams Single Barrel 2003 (for 3 weeks) and Kaedrin Bomb & Grapnel (for another 3 weeks). I created this concoction in early December, so it's been a solid 4-5 months.

Beer Nerd Musings: Because Dad's Hat is local, several local breweries have played with Dad's Hat barrels. Notably, for me, is Tired Hands, who have used old Dad's Hat barrels for several of their beers. Alas, while both beers were fantastic, I'm not entirely sure how much the barrels contributed. I liked regular Only Void base beer better than the Rye Barrel Only Void. On the other hand, I enjoyed FatherBeast more than MotherAnimal, though there may be other factors at play there. In a more general rye whiskey sense, I've had reasonable luck with beers aged in rye barrels. The Rittenhouse Rye variant of Eclipse was probably my favorite of the series last year, and Uinta's Labyrinth was a monster that uses both rye and bourbon barrels. So good potential here, and I look forward to exploring rye and beer some more.

So there you have it. There's really no reason I shouldn't go on the distillery tour, as Dad's Hat is only about an hour away... Someday, perhaps. Stay tuned for a Session post on beer writing on Thursday and next week, we hit Tea!

Double Feature: Coca-Cola

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Before I was obsessed with beer, I was obsessed with Coke. This may seem odd given how much of a novelty whore I am when it comes to beer, but I spent decades of my life pining for but one drink: Coca-Cola. When I was but a wee nerd, during the early stages of the cola wars, my parents would limit my brother and I to one cola a week. They didn't take sides in the cola wars, preferring to simply buy whatever was on sale. My brother and I, however, took up arms for Pepsi and Coke respectively. For reasons beyond my understanding, my parents decided to fan the flames of this conflict, pitting my brother and I against each other.

We finally got fed up with the constant attrition of war and decided to make an appeal to a higher authority. We left a note for none other than Santa Claus himself, explaining our dilemma. We providing a can of each soft drink along with some chocolate chip cookies, with the understanding that Santa would choose one over the other and thus decide the fate of the cola wars in one swift maneuver. I'm sure you remember the nervous energy of Christmas Eve and the challenges that presents to sleep, but this particular year was especially grueling. Nevertheless, we soldiered on and when the big morning finally arrived, we bound down the steps to find... an empty glass and a note that said "I prefer milk." That magnificent, clever bastard! And my parents were apparently pretty good too.

Anyway, my love for Coke continued unabated for many moons, but it wasn't meant to last. As my love for beer waxed, my love for coke waned. It was not an easy transition, but I managed to break the habit by giving it up for Lent for a couple years. So the irony isn't lost as I spend some time during this Lenten season, when I vowed to drink less beer and explore other beverages, returning to Coke.

This past weekend, I drank two different Cokes. Believe it or not, I've already covered the debacle of New Coke on the blog (in relation to how sip tests like the "Pepsi Challenge" lead everyone astray, and how small samples of beer can do the same), but the short story is this: Coke replaced their main brand with New Coke, saw the disastrous sales that resulted, and reintroduced the original recipe as "Classic Coke" with one tiny little change: instead of using pure cane sugar, they used the newer, cheaper high fructose corn syrup. However, that little change only really happened in the US. Other areas of their world still use straight cane sugar, including our neighbors over in Mexico. What's more, you can sometimes find bottles of Mexican Coke*, which are labeled as "Coca-Cola Refresco" and come in the classic glass bottle as well. So I snagged a bottle of that stuff and compared it to the standard corn syrup offering.

Coca-Cola Refresco

Coca-Cola Refresco - Pours a clear, dark brown amber color with a finger of quickly disappearing head. Smells sweet, with that undefinable spice character. You know how they say when you're brewing beer that if you can pick out the specific spice you used, you used too much? Well Coke certainly doesn't use too much, as you really can't pick out stuff that is supposed to be in the recipe, like cinnamon, nutmeg, and coriander. Still, you do get a bit of a kick, and some of the other ingredients kinda show themselves. Taste is very sugary sweet, maybe the faintest hints of vanilla and caramel, with a slight spice component that lingers a bit in the finish. Mouthfeel is well carbonated, smooth, and a little syrupy towards the finish. Overall, yes, this is Coke alright. According to Wikipedia, sometimes Mexican Coke still uses HFCS, but this was definitely different from the regular offering.

Coke Nerd Details: 12 oz capped glass bottle. Drank out of a willybecher glass on 3/28/14. Best by: 05NOV14.

Coca-Cola Classic - The color is a little more brown and the highlights less amber, but otherwise pretty similar appearance. The nose is obviously similar, but having these back to back, they do kinda smell a little different. Nothing dramatic though. The taste is also very similar, with less of an aftertaste. Mouthfeel is where I'm getting the biggest difference, as this feels more effervescent, highly carbonated, and less syrupy. That's not necessarily better, just different.

Coke Nerd Details: 20 oz screw cap plastic bottle. Drank out of a willybecher glass on 3/28/14. Best by: MAY0514.

Overall, I have to admit, I don't really have a big preference for either... they are clearly different though, and would both hit the spot if I was ever in need of a Coke. I will say that I was expecting the Refresco to be definitively better than the regular, but I don't see it. Certainly different though. I did not rate either of these because realistically, there are only, like, 5 options here, so, what? Coke gets an A, Pepsi gets an F? Right.

Beer Nerd Musings: I've always wanted to make a batch of homebrew that utilized Coke as a sugar addition. It's mostly just sugar, so it should get eaten up completely by the yeast, just leaving whatever flavoring elements are in Coke, which could be interesting. I've actually been accumulating a bunch of odd ingredients in my regular homebrewing duties (a pound of unneeded DME here, an ounce of extra hops there) and so I thought it might be interesting to just throw it all together and hit it up with some Saison yeast, with the result being called "Clusterfuck Saison" or something like that. And I guess I could use Coke as a sugar addition, because why not? It's not like it's going against the Saison style definition (of which there really isn't any). This summer, perhaps.

So there you have it. At this point, I'd just like to observe that I went for the entire post without making any lame cocaine jokes. Until now, I guess, but I'm going to pat myself on the back for showing some sort of restraint. Anywho, tomorrow, we talk Rye Whiskey. Stay tuned.

* You can also find pure cane-sugar sweetened Coca-Cola in select 2 Liter bottles during Passover (as HFCS is apparently not Kosher enough for Passover). It can be hard to find and unpredictably stocked (it doesn't fly off shelves like BCBS, but it's not an easy get either), but Passover Coke is not a legend, I've definitely had some back in my Coke-obsessed days and basically done the above comparison. Passover starts on 4/14, so keep an eye out for 2 liter bottles with yellow caps!

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Hi, my name is Mark, and I like beer.

You might also want to check out my generalist blog, where I blather on about lots of things, but mostly movies, books, and technology.

Email me at mciocco at gmail dot com.

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