Culture

Adventures in Brewing: Barleywine Bottling

After six long weeks of fermentation (three primary and three secondary), it was finally time to bottle the barleywine and hot damn, it seems to be in rather fantastic shape right now. Add in a little carbonation and this stuff should be prime. Amazing caramel and dark fruit notes, and the bourbon oaked version seems to have taken on more of that character here than my RIS did… Speaking of which, I went with the same approach as the RIS. Primary fermentation was all together, but when I transferred to secondary I split the batch, leaving one alone and adding bourbon soaked oak cubes to the other. At bottling time, I bottled some of the plain barleywine, did a 1:1 blend and bottled some of that, and then the remainder of straight bourbon oaked beer. Also of note, the beer looked really pretty, especially when I held it up to light, a gorgeous dark amber color that isn’t quite as prominent in the picture below, but it’s still a nice looking beer.

Homebrewed Barleywine

Final gravity was somewhere in the 12.6 Bx to 12.7 Bx range for all three variants, which translates to about 1.023. Astute readers may remember that I had reported the gravity as 1.017 when I was racking to secondary, but I must have been reading the Refractometer wrong or something, because there’s no way the FG should go up. Regardless, this still represents somewhere around 74% attenuation (and around 9.3% ABV), which is pretty good, and 1.023 should provide a nice rich and chewy mouthfeel without being too overwhelming. The RIS finished at 1.029, which seems awfully high, but which tastes really good, so we should be in good shape.

Like I said, this batch smelled and tasted rather awesome even this early in the process, so I can’t wait for these to condition in the bottle. I figure I’m in for another 3 weeks or so before it’ll be ready, though I’m sure I’ll check one of the “transition” bottles (I separated the first couple bottles after each transition from straight barleywine to the bourbon oaked version because of the liquid in the tubing made for an inconsistent blend, though I’m sure the beer will be fine).

At this point, I’m unsure if I’ll do another batch before the heat of summer really kicks in. If I do, it may just be a small 4% saison for the keg. Next fall, I’m planning on doing a Scotch Ale (perhaps with a similar bourbon oak treatment) and maybe something like a black IPA (or whatever the heck you call that stuff). I also want to give the Imperial Red ale another chance someday. But for now, I’ve got a few cases of barleywine and stout to work through, which should last me a while (and quite honestly, I’d much rather free up those bottles than scrape the labels off these other ones because damn, that’s an annoying process).

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #15: Barleywine

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 Beer Blog)

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #14: Fat Weekend IPA 2014

After ruining my last batch of beer with an overly ambitious yeast harvesting scheme, I’ve returned to a recipe that has worked in the past, and will no doubt work well again. Of course, I’m tweaking the recipe considerably, as I’m wont to do, but the basics are pretty well the same. As with last year, I’m brewing this batch of beer for a specific event in mid-March. It’s called Fat Weekend, a annual gathering of portly friends from all over the northeast (and some points west). To be sure, we’re not that fat, but as we like to say, fat is a frame of mind, and our caloric intake over the course of the weekend is easily 5-10 times our normal rate. Last year, we housed about half a case of my beer pretty quickly, so this year will be a full batch (as opposed to the 2.5 gallon batches I’ve been making). And again, there are some tweaks to the recipe and it is scaled up to a 5 gallon recipe, though I think it’s pretty similar:

Beer #14: Fat Weekend IPA

Full-Batch (5 gallons)

February 8, 2014

1 lb. CaraPils (specialty grain)

0.5 lb. Crystal 20 (specialty grain)

6 lb. Muntons Light DME

12 oz. Turbinado Sugar

1.5 oz. Simcoe (bittering @12.7 AA)

0.5 oz. Simcoe (flavor)

1 oz. Amarillo (flavor)

2 oz. Amarillo (aroma)

1 oz. Amarillo (dry hop)

1 tsp. Irish Moss

Wyeast 1272 – American Ale II Yeast

Fat Weekend IPA Ingredients

This was perhaps a bigger change than I let on. Gone is the Vienna malt, and I only really scaled up the CaraPils (for body). The Crystal 20 remains the same, and the Turbinado sugar was only partially scaled up. Hop wise, I went with a Simcoe/Amarillo blend, with Simcoe providing the bulk of bittering (and just a a bit of flavor) and Amarillo pulling duty on flavor, aroma, and dry hops. And just to switch things up a bit, I went with the American Ale II yeast, which seems to be a clean yeast that will still provide a little citrus boost to the hops (so I hope). Furthermore, I’m planning to keg this batch and transport the results in growlers.

So it might be a bit disingenuous to give this the same name as last year’s Fat Weekend IPA, but hey, I’m working on it. From a recipe standpoint, I’m thinking this is just about where I want to be. Last year, I really wanted to use this Simcoe/Amarillo hop schedule, but was stymied by a lack of Amarillo and fell back on Falconer’s Flight and Citra to make up for the difference. The only real change I could see myself making next year is if the Conan yeast becomes more widely available (whether that be ECY 29 (Northeast Ale) or something else), but I’m definitely curious about this American Ale II yeast (from the descriptions I’ve read, it seems to have similar properties, though it’s clearly not the same yeast).

And this is a first, I forgot to take an OG reading. What can I say, I’ve been fighting a cold and hadn’t quite gotten over it on Saturday. The recipe should have yielded something in the 1.067 range, and given my previous experience, I probably hit something around there. I’m pretty confident that after two weeks we’ll be in good shape (somewhere around 7.1% ABV).

Next up on the schedule is some sort of barleywine, which I’d like to give a bourbon soaked oak treatment to (or perhaps I’ll go with something more exotic, like Port wine soaked oak, we shall see), then do the whole straight, oaked, and blend of straight and oaked versions. From what I’ve had of Bomb & Grapnel, the blend seems to be doing the best, so maybe I’ll lean more heavily on that… After the barleywine, something light and crushable for summertime consumption (either a 4% pale ale, or a light saison). Then I plan to do something similar to Red Heady again in the fall, hopefully not screwing it up that time. After that, who knows? Maybe a redux of my Christmas Ale (a spiced winter warmer) or another batch of Bomb & Grapnel (with some slight tweaks). But now I’m getting way ahead of myself.

(Cross posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Tweets of Glory

As a testament to the enduring power of blogs, I give you a blog post that consists almost entirely of tweets. You’re welcome.

And that’s all for now. See you this weekend with Kaedrin Movie Awards nominations!

The 2013 Egg Nog Tasting

A tradition born by accident, my family’s Egg Nog tasting happens every Thanksgiving. One Thanksgiving many moons ago, thanks to poor coordination, everyone brought one or two Egg Nogs, and thus we ended up with, like, 14 different types. I’m not actually positive what year this really went into overdrive, but ever since that fateful year, we’ve actually planned to have that many Egg Nogs, and have even gone so far as to orchestrate a double blind tasting in order to determine the Best Egg Nog (the “worst” is usually a pretty easy and uncontroversial decision that does not require any real debate). I mean, we’re not scientists here or anything, but this is pretty rigorous for a family gathering. I could have sworn I did a better job recapping each year’s proceedings, but only a few previous tastings have been chronicled: [2012 | 2010 | 2008].

One thing we’ve noticed is that the same Egg Nogs tend to show up every year, and we’ve got a few that consistently win (notably local mainstays Wawa and Swiss Farms). Last year we made a rule that the previous year’s winner (and “winner” of worst nog) could not return. This year we made a concerted effort to seek out completely new and obscure Egg Nogs. I was actually shocked at how well we did in this mission, though of course there were a couple repeats. So let’s do this, the Egg Nogs of 2013:

2013 Egg Nogs

For posterity, the Egg Nogs pictured here are (from left to right):

  • Turkey Hill Egg Nog
  • America’s Choice Holiday Favorite Egg Nog
  • Bolthouse Farms Limited Edition Holiday Nog (Low Fat)
  • Promised Land Old Fashioned Egg Nog
  • Trader Joes Egg Nog
  • Trickling Springs Creamery Farm Friend Fresh Egg Nog
  • Califa Farms Almondmilk Holiday Nog
  • Lehigh Valley Holiday Eggnog
  • Borden Eggnog
  • Silk Seasonal Nog

The only returning contenders were the Turkey Hill, which has pretty much always shown up (but always places somewhere in the middle of the pack), and the Silk Seasonal Nog (which has won “worst” in the past). The Borden was arguably a returning contender as well, though it’s now packaged in a resealable container (Borden was always famous for being canned) and while they claim the recipe is the same, this stuff was nothing like the Borden of years past (which was also a middle of the pack performer). Indeed, the Borden was nearly toxic and came out a weirdly bright, almost glowing color. Gross.

But as bad as it was, Borden was still at least marginally identifiable as Egg Nog. One thing I’ve noticed about the competition for worst egg nog is that it is dominated by entries that aren’t actually “egg” nog. They’re always just “Holiday Nog” or “Seasonal Nog” or “Coconut Nog” or some such lie. These really aren’t Egg Nogs, but they’ve got some nutmeg and they’re trying to capitalize on the season. I guess that’s fine for big Soymilk fans, but when you have these right next to real Egg Nog, that just makes them seem all the worse. This year’s competition was between the Bolthouse Farms Low Fat Holiday Nog, which was packaged so deceptively that we didn’t realize what it was until we nearly gagged on it. Silk was its normal self, but the real revolution in bad flavor belongs to Califa Farms Almondmilk Holiday Nog. It was so bad, I think it somehow hurt my eyeballs. The decision was unanimous.

The competition for best was a little better, though I do think the champions of years past (Wawa, Swiss Farms, Upstate Farms) would have trounced all of this year’s competitors. Indeed, the normally middle of the pack Turkey Hill was a clear favorite heading into the blind tasting, which only featured three Egg Nogs this year: Turkey Hill, America’s Choice (whose box sez “fa-la-la-la-yum”, which became its unofficial name), and Promised Land (whose label proclaims “From the finest Jersey Cows”). It was close, but Promised Land came out the victor.

Egg Nogs

It was a fine year, but I think we need to have something like a Tournament of Champions next year, and bring back all the best Egg Nogs. I’m also toying with a rule that we should not accept “holiday nogs” that are not actually Egg Nog. Of course, that would limit options for the “worst” award, though I suppose “Light” egg nogs (or Borden!) could qualify. But maybe instead of worst, we bring back “flavored” egg nogs (which were banned several years ago). We’ll have to wait until next year. But me, I’m going to hit up Wawa sometime this week and get some real Egg Nog…

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #12: Red Heady

As mentioned earlier this week, I’ve attempted to harvest some yeast from old cans of Heady Topper. It seemed to work, though I’m not sure how much I was actually able to grow the yeast. It seemed pretty lethargic to start, it took a few days to seemingly do anything, and while I could see the yeast had grown, I’m still not entirely sure there was enough to be viable for a full batch. I guess there’s only one way to find out, eh? I’ve been toying with this recipe for a hoppy red ale for a while now, and I’m pretty excited to try it out. It’s also a batch that doesn’t require lengthy secondary treatments (like the RIS or Brett Saison), so this may be ready by Christmas (red ale for Christmas? Sounds good to me), though I’m pushing it a bit close for that. Anywho, let’s get this party started:

Brew #13 – Red Heady

December 7, 2013

0.5 lb. Crystal 60 (specialty grain)

2 oz. Roasted Malt (specialty grain)

3 lb. Briess Golden Light DME

3.3 lb. Amber LME

1 lb. Turbinado Sugar

1 oz. Simcoe hops (bittering @ 12.7% AA)

0.5 oz. Citra hops (flavor)

0.5 oz. Mosaic hops (flavor)

0.5 oz. Citra hops (aroma)

0.5 oz. Mosaic hops (aroma)

1 oz. Citra hops (dry)

1 tsp Bitter Orange Peel

1 tsp Irish Moss

Heady Topper “Conan” yeast

Red Heady Ingredients

Nothing particularly fancy going on here. Very simple specialty grains for steeping, partly because I just went for the Amber extract (I suppose I could have stuck with all light DME and incorporated the Amber malt directly, but this was easier). The Turbinado sugar is pretty large, I guess, but I should get enough body from the Amber extract and Crystal 60, so that should be fine.

I’d originally planned for a Simcoe and Amarillo hop mix, but apparently Amarillo hasn’t made its way to my homebrew shop yet, so I fell back on Citra and Mosaic. Citra has been growing on me of late, and Mosaic is relatively new (released in 2012). Mosaic is apparently the daughter of Simcoe, and it has Simcoe-like properties, but also apparently a wider range of tropical fruit aromas. I’m sure this will turn out fine.

Original Gravity: 1.065 (about 15.8°Bx). This is just about on target, and should yield something around 7% ABV if all goes well. I am a little worried about the yeast though, so I bought a packet of Wyeast 1056 in case things don’t go so well with the harvested Heady yeast. Fingers crossed for a strong ferment!

Up next on the homebrew front is the RIS bottling (hopefully next weekend), and then I’m not sure! I definitely want to do a Barleywine in the same way I’m doing the RIS (split batches, with one bourbon oaked, etc…) And Fat Weekend IPA is also on the schedule. I’m starting to accumulate a bunch of unused ingredients, stuff that’s just laying around. Maybe I’ll make something called “Clusterfuck Ale” with whatever I have laying around. I definitely want to make an easy-drinking sessionable pale ale for the summer (around 4% ABV). After that, who knows? I may tweak the saison recipe to get more Brett exposure, maybe incorporate some oak into that too. So many ideas, so little time (and only so much liver).

(Cross Posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Adventures in Brewing – Updates

Homebrewing is not a hobby for the impatient, especially when you get a taste for stuff like funky saisons or oak aged beers. My last couple batches have been such beers, so it feels like I haven’t gotten much done lately, though in about a month’s time, I’ll (hopefully) be awash in more homebrew than I know what to do with. I don’t know how curious you are about this stuff, but updates on three batches of beer (two already mentioned, one upcoming) are below. Apologies if this isn’t your bag, but hey, there’s some pretty pictures you can look at too.

First up, Kaedrôme Saison, brewed wayyy back in June, I split the 5 gallon batch into two. Half was bottled in July, the other half was put into secondary and dosed with Brettanomyces, crossing the Rubicon of Funk. The first half, a “regular” saison, is drinking rather well at this point, though I’m running a little low on supply. I brought a bomber to Thanksgiving, and the relatively high carbonation and dry palate were perfect matches for the hearty meal. That second half had been slumbering in secondary for about 4 months, after which I figured it was finally time to bottle it.

Kaedrome Saison, post-secondary

Final Gravity came in at 1.003 (6.2bx), which was a nice decrease from the 1.007 of the “regular” saison. Tasting the uncarbonated stuff, it seemed relatively light on Brett funk, but very dry (as you might expect from gravity readings like that). I was a little worried about bottling this after 4 months in secondary. Would the yeast be up to carbonating this after so long? It turns out that my fears were unfounded. I bottled on 11/16/13, and cracked open a test bottle (that wasn’t quite a full fill) on 11/27/13. It wasn’t perfect, but it had carbonated a bit, and was very drinkable. Again, it’s a little light on the funk for now, but we’ll see how it conditions in the bottle. I plan on bringing this to beer club next week, so we’ll see how it’s doing then.

Now I just need to freak out about all the equipment that touched the Brett. I’m sure I cleaned it all well enough, but it could be a bit nerve wracking because everyone says that Brett is so hardy that it will find a way to survive, like those dinosaurs from Jurassic Park. Life finds a way. You can’t see me as I write this, but I’m Goldbluming right now. It’s sad. Anyway, I’ve ordered up some new tubing and other fittings, so we should be all good. And the old tubing/fittings will be used the next time I feel like making a funky beer (which will probably be sooner rather than later).

Next, that Russian Imperial Stout that I brewed a few weeks ago! I checked the gravity on 11/16/13, about two weeks after brew day, and it was still at 1.034, which was much higher than expected (especially after that super vigorous fermentation over the first few days). I decided to give it another week in primary, and opted to bottle Kaedrôme that day…

On 11/23/13, I transfered to secondary fermenters. Final Gravity was 1.031 (14.1 bx), which is still excessively high, but I figure giving this another three weeks in secondary would bring that down to something manageable. I’m guessing it won’t get down to 1.023, but if I can get it to drop a few points, I’ll be pretty happy with it. As mentioned in the original post, I split the batch into two secondaries, one straight up, the other with bourbon soaked oak cubes. The plan is to eventually bottle some of each, then bottle a blend of the two, yielding 3 total variants. I’m super excited to see how these turn out, but I’m guessing it will need to condition in the bottle for quite some time.

I used Medium Toast American Oak, and soaked it for two weeks in Evan Williams 2003 Single Barrel Bourbon. I boiled the oak for a few minutes up front to sanitize and get rid of some of the harsher tannins, then put them in a mason jar with bourbon. Here’s a pic of when I first put the oak in the bourbon:

Oak soaking in Bourbon

And below is a pic after a few days. Note how much darker the bourbon got. The comparison isn’t super fair because of the cap on the mason jar and the fact that some of the oak was sinking as it got saturated with bourbon (both of which are blocking some of the light and making it seem darker), but even when I hold it up to the light, it’s noticeably darker. That medium toast is doing its thing, I guess.

Bourbon and Oak, after a few days

This is shaping up to be my most interesting batch to date. Can’t wait to see how it turns out, and I’m really hoping for great things. Bourbon Barrel Stouts have become a true favorite of mine, so being able to produce something like that myself will be great.

Finally, another mad scientist experiment. I had some cans of Heady Topper left over from Operation Cheddar. Heady is, of course, a damn near perfect DIPA, and while I’m sure their hop charges, sourcing, and selection are superb, I think the thing that really separates Heady from the rest of the world is its yeast strain, the fabled “Conan” yeast that supposedly emphasizes the juicy citrus flavors in the hops. For some ungodly reason, neither Wyeast nor White Labs have cultured this yet (and they don’t have anything comparable*), so I thought I’d harvest the yeast dregs from a couple cans of the stuff and see if I could whip it into shape.

Yeast Harvesting Goodness

I was a little worried at first, as I saw no signs of activity for at least three days. But before I could properly despair, I started to see some bubbles (it turns out that this delayed start is common amongst those of us nerds who have tried harvesting Heady yeast). Soon, I could see that the yeast had grown, and the fermentation was visible. Score. I’m going to crash it tonight and give it just a teensy bit of extra wort tomorrow night to get it into shape for brew day on Saturday. I’m planning on making a hoppy red beer (planning on Simcoe and Amarillo as the hops, but we’ll see what my local shop has in stock). Wish me luck.

So it’s going to be an interesting few months. If this Conan yeast thing works out, I’ll try using it for the annual Fat Weekend IPA as well. And if the oaked RIS works, I might whip up a barleywine this winter and do the same thing…

* East Coast Yeast makes a Northeast Ale (ECY29) that is rumored to be based on Conan, but it’s hard to come by…

(Cross posted at Kaedrin Beer Blog)

Men, Women, and Chain Saws

In 1980, Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert hosted a special edition of their Sneak Previews PBS show, and used the opportunity to decry an emerging “Women in Danger” genre of horror thrillers:

It’s important to note that this was only the opening salvo of exploitation horror. New technology, changes in distribution, the continuing emergence of independent filmmaking, and a host of other factors lead to a glut of popular yet despised horror films. The dominant sub-genre of these films was the Slasher film, but Siskel and Ebert were talking about this so early in the process that the much maligned sub-genre hadn’t even been named yet. There is something prescient about the two film critics putting this episode together when they did. The heyday of the slasher was only beginning and would last another three years before it even started to subside.

Indeed, it must have been more than a little odd to have been present while all of this was happening. I actually like slasher movies and have watched a lot of them during my annual Six Weeks of Halloween horror movie marathon, but even I would probably have had a different reaction back in 1980. Apparently one of the things that prompted Siskel and Ebert to dedicate a show to the behavior of the crowd during the film I Spit On Your Grave, as they shouted and cheered the rape sequences in the film. That has to be a disturbing way to watch a movie. But with time and perspective, things have changed a bit.

Enter Carol Clover, a Professor at UC Berkely, who wrote several essays on horror films that have since been collected in the book Men, Women, and Chain Saws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film:

This book began in 1985 when a friend dared me to go see The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I was familiar with the horror classics and with stylish or “quality” horror (Hitchcock, De Palma, and the like), but exploitation horror I had assiduously avoided. Seeing Texas was a jolting experience in more ways than one. (Page 19)

Alerted to the genre, she started to explore territory she had avoided, and “against all odds” she has “ended up something of a fan”. She certainly doesn’t go too easy on the genre, and in many ways, her critiques mirror Siskel and Ebert’s, but perhaps with the perspective of time, she has also found value in these films, and she did so at a time when they were universally reviled and never given much of a thought. Her essay on slasher films first appeared in 1987 (just as the genre was in its final death throes) and was revised in this book in 1992, and immediately changed the landscape. In this essay, Clover coins the term “Final Girl”, and notes that even if audiences identify with or cheer on the killer early in the film, they always experience a reversal as the Final Girl fights back. Reading this now, it seems odd that anyone would be surprised that a male viewer could relate to a female protagonist, but this was apparently a surprising thing that people were still working through. As Erich Kuersten notes: “I wasn’t afraid for girls, or of girls, I was afraid through girls.”

Again, the fact that Clover finds value here does not mean she’s blind to the issues with slasher films, but she also thinks its worth discussing:

One is deeply reluctant to make progressive claims for a body of cinema as spectacularly nasty toward women as the slasher film is, but the fact is that the slasher does, in its own perverse way and for better or worse, constitute a visible adjustment in the terms of gender representation. (Page 64)

Clover’s slasher essay shines a light on a reviled sub-genre, and is clearly the centerpiece of the book, but there are several other chapters, all filled with similarly insightful looks at various sub-genres of horror. In one, she tackles occult films, with a focus on possession films like The Exorcist, and contrasts with the slasher:

It is in comparison with the slasher film that the occult film (above all the possession film) comes into full focus. Both subgenres have as their business to reimagine gender. But where the slasher concerns itself, through the figure of the Final Girl, with the rezoning of the feminine into territories traditionally occupied by the masculine, the occult concerns itself, through the figure of the male-in-crisis, with a shift in the opposite direction: rezoning the masculine into territories traditionally occupied by the feminine. (Page 107)

I don’t always buy into all of this, but then, I came of age when all these films were playing on cable. I grew up with strong Final Girls, so the notion that “strength” would ever be “gendered masculine” seems a little silly to me, but perhaps 30-40 years ago, that was not the case (and vice versa for the male-in-crisis movies). I probably never would have used the same terminology or articulated in the same way, but I’ve clearly internalized these notions.

There is a chapter on Rape Revenge films, which I am actually not very well versed in (because I was reading this, I watched I Spit On Your Grave this year), but which makes a fair amount of sense. It’s easy to see why these movies are controversial, especially something like I Spit, but Clover manages to find value in these films (one of which includes the all male Deliverance) and makes all sorts of clever observations about commonalities in the genre (in particular, there isn’t just a male/female dichotomy in these films, but also a city/country or sophisticated/redneck component to the rape and revenge). Finally, there is a chapter on “The Eye of Horror”, which spends a lot of time looking at perspective shots and “gazes.”

It’s a fascinating book, filled with interesting observations and a motivated perspective. There are certainly nits to pick (for instance, at one point, she claims that Werewolf stories are about a fear of being eaten by an animal, which I guess is there, but the real fear is becoming a werewolf yourself, losing control, being overwhelmed by your animal desires, etc… The enemy within, and all that…) and I don’t always agree with what she’s asserting, especially when she starts down the rabbit hole of Freudian analysis and some of the broader topics like “gazes” and “rape culture” and so on. I could quibble with some of her key films in each chapter (she perhaps overestimates The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 and its impact on the genre, though it’s clearly a great example for Clover’s thesis) and the notion of closely observing a few films and extrapolating that into an entire sub-genre will always cause some dissonance, but Clover clearly did her homework and has seen not only the famous horror movies, but also her fair share of obscure ones. Like the Bechdel Test, the perspective here is narrowed to gender, which of course, isn’t the only perspective to have while watching movies. Also like the Bechdel test*, there’s this notion that you have to take individual examples of something and treat it as a representative of a much broader trend. This doesn’t make these analyses any less interesting though!

When you look at Siskel and Ebert’s response to these films, then Clover’s response (years later and with some unique perspectives), it’s easy to see how much we inform our reactions to film ourselves. Siskel and Ebert saw only misogyny, which is not entirely incorrect, but Clover looked at the films differently and managed to find value. I think a lot of people would find both analyses absurd, and they wouldn’t be entirely wrong about that either. People often complain that critics never represent the mainstream, perhaps because the mainstream never really concerns itself with context or perspective. They’re looking to be entertained for a few hours on a Friday night, not discuss the reversal of gender politics or other such high-minded affairs. In the end, a book like Men, Women, and Chain Saws probably says just as much about Carol Clover as it does about the films themselves. You see what you want to see in movies, and while that can be interesting, that’s not always the whole story.

To a remarkable extent, horror has come to seem to me not only the form that most obviously trades in the repressed, but itself the repressed of mainstream filmmaking. When I see an Oscar-winning film like The Accused or the artful Alien and its blockbuster sequel Aliens, or, more recently, Sleeping with the Enemy and Silence of the Lambs, and even Thelma and Luise, I cannot help thinking of all the low-budget, often harsh and awkward but sometimes deeply energetic films that preceded them by a decade or more – films that said it all, and in flatter terms, and on a shoestring. If mainstream film detains us with niceties of plot, character, motivation, cinematography, pacing, acting, and the like, low or exploitation horror operates at the bottom line, and in so doing reminds us that every movie has a bottom line, no matter how covert or mystified or sublimated it may be. (Page 20)

* Interestingly, horror movies tend to pass the Bechdel test at a much higher rate than most other genres (just shy of 70% pass the test, as compared to stuff like Westerns or Film Noir, where it’s more like 25%). This says nothing about the quality of the films or their feminist properties, but it’s an interesting note…

On The Bechdel Test

For the uninitiated, the Bechdel Test is meant to gauge the presence of female characters in film. In order to pass the test, a film must meet three requirements:

  1. It has to have at least two [named] women in it
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man

The test is named after Alison Bechdel, a cartoonist who formulated the rule as a setup to a punchline in a 1985 comic strip for Dykes to Watch Out For (the punchline: “Last movie I was able to see was Alien…”) There are many variants to the rules, but the one listed above seems to be the most common – it adds a requirement that the two female characters have to be “named” to avoid counting stuff like a female clerk giving a woman change or something (a reasonable addition). It has slowly but surely ingrained itself into the popular culture, especially on the internet in the past few years. Indeed, it’s become so popular that it’s now frequently used incorrectly!

BechdelTest.com seems to be the best resource for this sort of thing, and the statistics are interesting. Out of 4570 movies, only 2555 (55.9%) pass the test. The trend does seem to be (very slowly) improving over time, but it’s a pretty dismal portrait.

The Bechdel Test is far from perfect (more on that in a bit), but I do find it to be interesting for two reasons:

  • It’s objective. Discussions of identity politics seem to angry up the blood, especially on the internets, so the removal of any subjectivity from the test is a good thing. These are facts here, not opinions.
  • It really does illustrate a certain type of gender imbalance in film. This is an important observation, if not the end-all-and-be-all of feminist criticism.

Alas, there are some rather severe limitations on this test:

  • It says nothing about the quality of the film in question. For instance, Citizen Kane and Casablanca fail the test. On the other hand, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (12% on Rotten Tomatoes) and The Smurfs 2 (14% on Rotten Tomatoes) pass.
  • It says nothing about how “feminist friendly” the film is. For instance: Showgirls passes the test, and while I don’t have a specific reference for this next one, I’m positive that there are lesbian porn movies (made explicitly for the titillation of men) that would pass the test too.

This isn’t mainsplaining or patriarchy speaking, these are acknowledged limitations of the test. Of course, finding ironic counterexamples is missing the point. It’s not that a given movie passes or fails the test, what matters is when you look at the film industry as a whole.

This, however, is the biggest flaw of the test. It’s a macro test applied at the micro scale. The test says nothing about an individual film’s worth (feminist or not), but the test must be applied to individual films. This leads to a whole boatload of misunderstandings and misguided attempts to tarnish (or praise) a movie because it failed (or passed) the Bechdel test. BechdelTest.com is filled with objections to a given rating and debate about whether an individual film is feminist enough to pass and other such misunderstandings of the rules (for instance: something can’t “barely” pass, it either does or doesn’t). This account of two students attempting to dominate their class by using the Bechdel Test to dismiss any film that didn’t pass is another demonstration. “They labeled any film that didn’t pass the test as unworthy of praise and sexist. … I’m not exaggerating in that statement, the pair literally dismissed Citizen Kane altogether and praised Burlesque.” (Of course, as the first commenter notes, both the account and the two students were applying the test incorrectly). Swedish movie theaters are instituting a new rating system that labels films that have passed (I’m not entirely clear of the implications here, but it’s still kinda missing the point).

The list could go on and on, but severe limitations like this make it clear that the Bechdel Test has a limited application. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with that and it does illustrate something about the industry, but let’s stop applying it where it doesn’t belong.

Some other assorted thoughts on the Bechdel Test:

  • One of the things that has always irked me about the test is the lack of a stated baseline. I’d be curious to see what a “reverse” Bechdel Test would show, and I think it would give greater context to the numbers being thrown around. Yeah, a 55.9% pass rate sounds low, but what if the “reverse” test showed a similar number for male representation in movies? Of course, it’s blindingly obvious that the male rate is significantly higher (my guess: 80%-90%), but it’s worth noting that just because a movie fails the Bechdel Test doesn’t mean it would pass the reverse test (in particular, I think the “about something other than a man/woman” rule would hit both sexes in the same movie pretty often. Having a baseline would better underscore the issue.
  • It’s ironic that one of the test’s biggest strengths, it’s objectivity, is also one of its biggest weaknesses. This, however, is true for just about any objective measurement ever conceived (i.e. not just for film). Objective measurements only ever tell a small proportion of the story, and you can’t judge an individual movie’s worth by checking boxes on a form (unless those boxes are for subjective measurements). If the Bechdel Test is your only way of evaluating movies, you will get a very myopic view of the industry.
  • Are there better, simpler metrics that could illustrate a similar issue? For instance, in an industry where the Auteur theory seems to be generally accepted, the director of the film is considered to be the primary author. Guess how many movies are directed by women? It’s somewhere on the order of 5%-10%, and most of them are tiny indies that you’ve never heard of… When you add in writers, producers, editors, etc… the numbers are still pretty low.
  • So what to do about the Bechdel Test results? I imagine this is where most arguments get really heated. I don’t know the answer, but given the above bullet, it looks to me like we need more female filmmakers. Artists tend to focus on what they know, and since the grand majority of filmmakers are men, it’s not surprising that female representation is low. How this would happen is a can of worms in itself…
  • It strikes me that the misunderstandings and limitations surrounding the Bechdel test are emblematic of debate surrounding identity politics in general. In particular, the resolution of individual/group dynamics is what trips a lot of people up (i.e. the Bechdel test says nothing important about individual movies, only groups of movies, yet because of the need to apply the Bechdel test at an individual level, the discussion often stays at that level). When it comes to insidious systemic issues like this, there’s a narrow line to walk, and it’s very easy to veer off the path.

Well, I think I’ve blabbered on long enough. What say you?

Adventures in Brewing – Beer #12: RIS

I tend to limit my brewing activities during the summer, but now that it’s getting colder, it’s time to fire up the brewhouse (i.e. my kitchen). I’ve been toying with the idea for this batch for a while now. The concept is that I will brew up a full 5 gallon batch of Russian Imperial Stout, ferment it out, then split the batch into two for secondary fermentation. One will simply condition as normal. The other will get an addition of Bourbon soaked oak cubes. Then! At bottling time, I plan to bottle some of the regular stout, some of the bourbon oak aged stout, and a blend of the two. This is most exciting, though I gather it will probably take a while for all of this to come together and condition well. Brewing is not a hobby for the impatient. So let’s get this party started:

Brew #12 – Russian Imperial Stout

November 2, 2013

1 lb. Crystal 60 (specialty grain)

1 lb. Debittered Black Malt (specialty grain)

0.75 lb. Chocolate Malt (specialty grain)

0.5 lb. Roasted Barley (specialty grain)

0.5 lb. Munich Malt (specialty grain)

9 lb. Briess Golden Light DME

2 oz. Columbus hops (bittering @ 16.3% AA)

1 oz. Cascade hops (flavor)

1 oz. Cascade hops (aroma)

2 oz. Oak Cubes: American Medium Toast

16 oz. Bourbon (TBD)

Wyeast 1450 Denny’s Favorite 50

Ingredients for my Homebrewed RIS

Like my first attempt at a stout (which was nowhere near an Imperial, but still), the base of this beer is all light DME, so I’m getting all the color and flavor out of specialty malts, of which there are a lot. Indeed, this is the most malt I’ve used in a recipe since my second batch (a Belgian tripel), and this is a great deal more complex too. (I originally only planned on a half pound of Debittered Black Malt, but my homebrew shop was only selling it in increments of 1 pound, so I figured why not). Steeping the grains in 2.5 gallons of water (needed to add more because I was using so much grain), the wort got super black, almost like black ink, and smelled strongly of coffee. According to my calculations, this should come out at around 59 SRM (anything over 30 is generally considered “black”, and my previous attempt at a stout was around 45 SRM).

Once I steeped and sparged the grains, I added 2/3 of the DME, adding the last 1/3 halfway through the boil. I actually had a bit of a boil-over mishap. Perhaps I started with too much water, which raised the level of the wort higher than normal (for me, at least). And it turns out that 9 pounds of DME takes up a lot of space too. In any case, I didn’t lose too much liquid and the crisis was mostly averted, so all was well there (it just made for more cleanup, boo).

Aside from the amount and variety of malt, the other big change from my first stout recipe is a more well rounded hop schedule. I felt my last batch didn’t have enough bitterness, and since this sucker is much bigger, I went with a high alpha hop in Columbus, and straightforward Cascade for flavor and aroma (not that those characteristics should or would be dominated by hops, but the Cascade should add some complexity, which is what I’m going for here).

Original Gravity: 1.098 (around 23.1°Bx). This is exactly on target, so I must have done something right! If all goes well, the ABV should wind up somewhere just north of 10% ABV, with enough residual sugar to stand up to the Bourbon and oak (FG should be somewhere around 1.023, assuming 75% attenuation).

Speaking of which, I used a Yeast starter for this batch. Yeast starters are not always necessary, but they seem to be a general best practice. All you do is pitch your yeast into a small amount of wort, which gets the yeast working and increases cell population dramatically, then you pitch the result into your full batch. For a beer this size, pitching more yeast is usually recommended, and will lead to a faster fermentation with less of a chance for off flavors or infection. This is my first attempt, and it seemed to go ok. Near as I can tell, I made a relatively small starter, and some recommend making a larger one, but I didn’t really have time to keep stepping it up (I started it on Thursday night, and it was ready to go on Saturday). That being said, I’m guessing I significantly increased the amount of yeast I pitched, which is certainly better than just chucking one yeast packet in the wort (or paying another 6 bucks for a second packet).

Yeast Starter

So I figure I’ll let this go in primary for two weeks, then rack to secondary (splitting into two three gallon fermenters) for an additional 3 weeks. As previously mentioned, I’ll be adding bourbon soaked oak cubes to one of the secondary fermenters. Not sure which Bourbon I’ll use for that task just yet (any recommendations? That Evan Williams Single Barrel in the picture is pretty good, but I might use something different) I also need to figure out if I’ll need to reyeast after secondary (any ideas there? I see mixed reports out there…)

I’m really excited to see how this turns out, even if it probably won’t be ready for a couple months (right around Christmastime). It should age really well too. In the meantime, I’ve still got that Brett dosed saison in secondary, and I think I’ll be bottling that soon. And once the RIS goes into secondary, I plan to sneak in another batch of something less complicated. Perhaps that hoppy red ale I keep talking about…

Update: Fermentation is going strong. Since I was using a yeast starter, I began fermentation with a blowoff tube (instead of your typical airlock) and I’m glad I did. Within 24 hours, this sucker is fermenting like crazy. All was fine a couple hours ago, then I went out for dinner and boom, blowoff tube engaged fully. Otherwise, this thing might have popped the lid on my bucket, shooting yeast and partially fermented wort everywhere. Ha.

Blow off tube

(Cross Posted on Kaedrin Beer Blog)