Session Ale – Thoughts, Recipe, and Review

The original brewdog Zeus pondering the sessionabilty of my beer.

The original brewdog Zeus pondering the sessionabilty of my beer.

There is a lot of debate in the beer world about what exactly defines a true session beer. Alcohol levels typically weigh heavily in the debate. Alcohol is a quantifiable variable with very specific implications, especially as it relates to the length of a drinking session. The specifics off what ABV is truly considered ‘sessionable’ makes for a fun debate, but is one that I’ll defer to the experts. For the Brits, frequent pub visits are an important part of daily life and culture. Taking queue from the ordinary bitters that frequently flow in pubs across the Isles, I’d suggest that a true session beer should be kept somewhere in the range of 3.0-3.5% ABV. Whether these levels were consciously set, or simply a by-product of the taxes imposed upon beer, the effect is clear. This level of alcohol strikes a good balance between the pleasant alcohol induced euphoria beer can produce (AKA a buzz)  and running the risk of prematurely ending a drinking session in a drunken stupor. Until a couple of years ago, it was difficult to find a beer this low in alcohol at American brewpubs. Luckily, a trend towards more moderate alcohol levels has taken root, and homebrewers are able to find numerous wonderful examples of commercial session beers.

Aside from alcohol content, there are other very important factors which improve a beer’s sessionability. To me, session beers should be relatively dry in order to prevent too much fullness. That said, low-gravity beers can easily become watery or tea-like if the gravity drops too low. There is a hugely important distinction that must be understood when formulating a session beer, and that is the difference between sweetness and body. A beer can be round with a medium body and moderate amount of residual gravity without tasting sweet. The key is making sure that all fermentable sugars have been consumed by the yeast and that the gravity that remains are dextrins which provide ample body without perceivable sweetness. Balance is the key.

Another important factor in sessionablity is flavor and complexity. Session beers should be complex enough to remain interesting, while not overburdening your palate. The Brits do this well with the bready malt components and nuanced yeast character found in their bitters. Personally for me, the same end result can be accomplished using hops. There is something amazing about drinking a beer with the balance and hop intensity of some of the bigger more intense American Pale ales while doing so at a more moderate ABV.

Single Hop Huell Melon Session Pale Ale

Recipe Specs:
Size: 3.23 gal
Efficiency: 68%
Attenuation: 64%

Original Gravity: 1.043
Terminal Gravity: 1.015
Color: 8.25 SRM
Alcohol: 3.53% ABV
Bitterness: 39.5 IBUs
Mash Temp: 159 °F

Grain Bill:
4.75 lb (79.2%) Weyermann Pilsner Malt
.25 lb (4.2%) Briess Victory® Malt
.25 lb (4.2%) Weyermann Pale Wheat Malt
.5 lb (8.3%) Weyermann Carahell®
.25 lb (4.2%) Weyermann Carared®

0.75 oz Huell Melon (5.2% AA) – 60 m
1 oz Huell Melon (5.2% AA) – 20 m

3 oz Huell Melon – 180 degree hop stand (5.2% AA) – 20 m

2 oz Huell Melon (5.2% AA) – Dry Hop 3 Days

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15 m
0.5 tsp Wyeast Nutrient – 10 m

WYeast 1056 American Ale™ – Build appropriately sized starter
Pitch yeast once beer is at 62°F. Keep beer at 64°F during the start and peak of fermentation. Slowly raise to 70°F as signs of fermentation taper off.

Water Treatment:
Soft NYC municipal water with 2g Gypsum and 4g Calcium Chloride added to the mash.

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP Category 23 Specialty Beer

Aroma (7/12):
While not as much melon as I had anticipated given the hop’s name, there is a nice round fruity hoppy character on the nose. The fruitiness is somewhat non-descript, although it is definitely not the typical citrus found in American hops. If I really search, I can convince myself there is some honeydew-like melon aromas, but it is a stretch. The hops have a touch of grassiness which isn’t offensive. The malt is really nice. It is soft with a hint of sweetness complemented by biscuit and sourdough bread.

Appearance (2/3):
The beer is a rich golden color bordering on copper with a touch of haze. The glass is capped with a white, fluffy, persistent head.

Flavor (17/20):
The hops are much more subdued in the flavor than the aroma. The malt is wonderful. Lots of toast and biscuit. The bitterness is firm and balancing, while being quite clean. The beer goes through a great procession on the palate with malt up front, then some juicy hops, and ending with a toasty malt finish.

Mouthfeel (5/5):
Beer is medium to medium-low bodied. The mouthfeel exceeds what I would have expected given the low starting gravity. Soft carbonation enhances this impression. No perceptible alcohol heat.

Overall Impression (10/10):
This is a really crushable session beer that exceeds my expectations. The new German hop variety used is pretty tame, and much more nuanced than other varieties being grown in the New World. All in all, the beer hits all the right chords in terms of what I search for in a session beer. Wonderful beer.

Excellent (41/50)

Fermented Pepper Rings and Chili Paste

It’s easy to forget the magic that lactic fermentation imbues upon some of our favorite foods. In particular, a wide variety of condiments are transformed through the alchemy of fermentation. Sriracha hot sauce? Fermented. Tabasco? Fermented (for years). Soy sauce, fish sauce, many types of chili paste? All fermented. When you start looking at the various sauces and pickles we love, you soon realize that most have their roots firmly grounded in the world of preservation and fermentation.

Jalepeno slices and chili paste ready to be transformed through fermentation.

Jalapeno slices and chili paste ready to be transformed through fermentation. Modifying mason jars with rubber grommets and airlocks is a cheap and easy way to prevent any undesired growth in your ferment.

Chilies are an excellent candidate to preserve via fermentation. As summer starts to become a memory and fall begins to whisper in our ears, the local NYC farmers markets begin to be filled with a variety of locally grown chilies. I’m a major fan of hot food, so my natural inclination is to capture as many of these fresh chilies as possible and preserve them for use throughout the winter. Chili paste and fermented jalepeno slices are an excellent means to do this.

Fermented Chili Paste

My chili paste consists of a blend of jalepenos, serranos, poblanos, and habaneros. Striking the right blend is key to obtaining your preferred heat level.

My chili paste consists of a blend of jalapenos, serranos, poblanos, and habaneros. Striking the right blend is key to obtaining your preferred heat level.

Fermented chili paste is not only a great condiment, but also a versatile addition to many recipes. It’s great because you can make it with any blend of peppers you wish, resulting in either a fruity/tangy sauce, or one that will burn off your taste buds. I ended up shooting for something in between the two. Using a blend of sweet and hot peppers will strike a nice balance. There really is no right or wrong blend. I like to add an entire head of garlic to the mix for a nice garlicky kick. Really the only rule I stick to is to include 2% by weight kosher salt. For example, if I have 500 grams of raw chopped up peppers, I’ll include 10 grams of kosher salt in the mix. This level of salt is key to encouraging good bacteria growth while inhibiting molds or other undesired microbiological activity.

 Fermented Jalapeno Slices

Another great way to preserve chilies is fermenting slices in a brine solution. The recipe couldn’t be easier. For this batch I sliced enough jalapenos to pack a pint sized mason jar to the brim. I then topped the jar with a brine solution consisting of filtered water and 5-6% by weight kosher salt. The mason jar was fitted with a lid and airlock and allowed to ferment for approximately a week. Again, taste should be your guide. Once the peppers fit your taste, refrigerator to slow further fermentation.

The pepper rings will take on a lovely tart acidic quality as well as some earthy funk. Texturally they retain a nice snap and are a great topping to many dishes.

A Few Words About Safety

  1. Smell and looks should be your guide. I don’t eat anything that grows mold or smells off.
  2. Wear gloves when handling chilies. The oils can and will burn you.
  3. Be careful when sealing ferments. Fermentation can produce CO2 gas. If this builds up in a sealed container, it can result in dangerous levels of pressure, which can cause vessels to burst. Frequently vent any sealed ferments, or ferment with an airlock.

Funky Tap – Brett Trois IPA

The last batch of Single Tap IPA I brewed ended up producing an extra gallon of wort that wouldn’t fit into my fermenter. Rather than toss the excess, I racked it to a 1-gallon glass jug and fermented it out with standard WYeast 1056 American Ale yeast before inoculating it with a secondary Brettanomyces Trois strain (White Labs WLP644). There has been quite a few commercial brewers producing Brett IPAs, especially using Brett Trois, and there seems to be some pretty nice flavor synergies between hops and this particular Brett strain.

Funky Tap

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP Category 23 Specialty Beer

Aroma (5/12):
The are some obvious Brett aromas coming from this beer. Esters smell almost like over-ripe pineapple and blend nicely with the potent citrusy / mango-like American hops jumping from the glass. The synergies between yeast and hop derived aromas is quite evident. The Brett has a low phenolic component that is both peppery and features a low amount of plastic-like aroma which feels a bit out of place. There is a slightly skunky / light-struck component to the aroma which is off. A low, honey-like component to the malt makes me think the beer may be slightly oxidized.

Appearance (3/3):
Medium copper and clear. This beer has dropped quite bright with a bit of age and cold conditioning. Persistent white fluffy head.

Flavor (11/20):
Lots of round citrusy/fruity hops. I’m a bit surprised how hoppy this is given the age and lack of dry hopping. It is tough to tell where the Brett derived flavors and hops begin and end, but the sum of the parts is quite nice and juicy. Malt is soft, bready, and round, but a bit oxidized. Bitterness is gentle, but balancing.

Mouthfeel (5/5):
Dry yet round. Somewhat of a paradox, but the mouthfeel sensation is quite pleasant.

Overall Impression (5/10):
This is a pretty nice beer and dramatically different than the non-Brett version. The melding of Brett flavors and hops works quite well. The only exception being the hint of pepper/plastic phenol which is a bit clashing. Additionally, the skunky aroma and oxidation stick out like a sore thumb to my pallet. This beer was a bit of a bastardized experiment generated by leftover wort. My normal process and care in transferring and storing the beer were not followed, and appear to have resulted in some off-flavors. Regardless, this beer really does illustrate the synergies that can take place between Brett derived esters and hop character.

Good (29/50)

Single Tap IPA (4.0) Recipe and Review

Brewhouse pug Daisy striking a less-than-impressed pose.

Brewhouse pug Daisy striking a less-than-impressed pose.

Single Tap is my constantly evolving attempt to brew what I consider to be the perfect IPA . I’ve now brewed iterations of this beer on four different occasions. The recipes have constantly evolved, converging towards a unified goal – making an extreme IPA where the process and recipe are tuned to produce the brightest and most intense hop aromatics possible. I question whether any beer, commercial or made at home, can ever be hoppy enough to satiate the most extreme hop heads. This is my attempt.

Let’s talk strategy. The more times that I’ve brewed this, the more I’ve realized that it would be difficult if not impossible to over-attenuate a beer like this. The drier I’ve pushed this beer, the more easily I’ve been able to get the hop aromatics to jump to the foreground. This beer went from 1.072 to 1.012 — 83% apparent attenuation, and could easily be pushed a bit further. Copious additions of simple sugar and low mash temps are key, and produce none of the oft-cited negative flavors that many brewers attribute to brewing with sugar. The grain bill derives a touch of malt complexity through the use of lightly kilned base malts (Vienna) and a token addition of low lovibond crystal. The malt character should be in the background and provide a clean backdrop for the hops.

Hopping levels in this beer are a bit absurd and dramatically loaded to the back-end whirlpool. In selecting the hop varieties, I focused on tropical fruit-forward hops. I’m not a huge fan of the more resinous/dank IPAs out there (like Stone Ruination), so I avoided certain hops like Columbus, Simcoe, and Chinook which can be a bit abrasive. During the boil, there was a small addition at the beginning to help keep the kettle foam down and lay down a low base of bitterness. The amount of bitterness required to balance this beer is minimal due to the low residual sugar levels. The key is obtaining nearly all of the bitterness during the whirlpool rest, which has the added benefit of imbuing a high level of hop flavor and aroma to the beer. Once kegged, I treat the beer with a huge dry hop.  I tend to limit the contact-time with dry hops since I’ve found that only bad flavors (grassiness) are gained after day three. It is important at this stage to thoroughly flush the vessel you’re dry hopping in with CO2 as oxidation in hoppy beers can seriously impact the life of the beer.

Single Tap IPA 4.0 Recipe

Recipe Specs:
Size: 4.25 gal
Efficiency: 75%
Attenuation: 83%

Original Gravity: 1.072
Terminal Gravity: 1.012
Color: 8.16 SRM
Alcohol: 7.9% ABV
Bitterness: 32.6 IBUs (Doesn’t account for significant bitterness obtained during the whirlpool)
Mash Temp: 147 °F

Grain Bill:
4.25 lb (43.0%) Weyermann Bohemian Pilsner Malt
4 lb (40.5%) Briess 2-Row Brewers Malt
12 oz (7.6%) Weyermann Vienna Malt
8 oz (5.1%) Briess White Wheat Malt
6 oz (3.8%) Briess 2-Row Caramel Malt 40L

8 g Citra™ (13.7% AA) – added first wort
0.5 oz Mandarina Bavaria (7.2% AA) – 10 m
0.5 oz Centennial (10.5%) – 10 m

2 oz Citra™ (13.7% AA) – Whirlpool 25m
2 oz Mandarina Bavaria (7.2% AA) – Whirlpool 25m
1 oz Amarillo® (8.7% AA) – Whirlpool 25m
1 oz Centennial (10.5% AA) – Whirlpool 25m

3 oz Amarillo® HOPBACK (8.7% AA) – Hop Back

0.5 oz Centennial (10.5% AA) – Dry Hop 3 Days
1 oz Citra™ (13.7% AA) – Dry Hop 3 Days
1.5 oz Amarillo® (8.7% AA) – Dry Hop 3 Days
1 oz  Mandarina Bavaria (7.2% AA) – Dry Hop 3 Days

Kettle Additions:
0.5 ea Whirlfloc Tablets (Irish moss) – 15 m
0.5 tsp Wyeast Nutrient – 10 m
1.25 lbs Table Sugar – 10m

WYeast 1056 American Ale™ – Build appropriately sized starter
Pitch yeast once beer is at 62°F. Keep beer at 64°F during the start and peak of fermentation. Slowly raise to 70°F as signs of fermentation taper off.

Water Treatment:
Soft NYC municipal water with 6g Gypsum and 3g Calcium Chloride added to the mash.

Tasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP Category 14B American IPA

Aroma (11/12):
This is quite possibly the hoppiest IPA I’ve ever stuck my nose into. The intensity of the hop aroma could very well have surpassed the limits set by the best commercial hoppy beers out there. Huge amounts of tangerine-like citrus, mango, and sweet orange jump from the glass. The hopping levels exceed the levels described in the BJCP guideline which currently doesn’t reflect the intense aromatics found in the best examples of contemporary IPAs. A low bready malt character is barely apparent behind all the hops.

Appearance (1/3):
The beers pours a light golden hue with a high level of murky hop haze. A fluffy white head forms and easily persists to the bottom of the glass. This is not a pretty beer… and I’m okay with that.

Flavor (17/20):
The hop bombardment carries through to the flavor, leaving only just a hint of any malt behind. The hop flavor fills your mouth with intense fruit flavors and a hint of pine resin. A touch of grassiness was apparent when the beer was initially kegged, but eventually dropped off as the beer aged out. A bit of warm alcohol is apparent and reminds me that this beer pushes the alcoholic boundaries for a standard IPA. The bitterness is medium high and lingers a touch in the finish, along with a huge amount of hop flavor. Very dry malt, with fruity hops giving a slight impression of sweetness.

Mouthfeel (5/5):
Somehow this beer manages to feel dry and round at the same time. My suspicion is that the hop oils contribute a beautiful silky mouthfeel.

Overall Impression (10/10):
This beer goes above and behind the levels of hops that the BJCP describes for American IPAs. That said, it truly reflects contemporary examples of the best IPAs currently produced in the commercial craft market. The beer is dangerously quaffable. A world-class hop delivery vehicle.

Excellent (44/50)

Spawn of Duvel Review

Belgian BlondTasting Notes:

Judged as a BJCP Category 18a Belgian Blond. Recipe can be found here.

Aroma (7/12)
At first pour the nose is a bit biting due to an abundant amount of CO2 coming out of solution. This sharpness combines with a strong ester character making it a bit over-the-top. Aromas of under-ripe pear and a touch of nondescript berry dance from the glass. Once some of the carbonation dissipates, softer honey-like malt components become apparent and are quite inviting. No phenols or alcohol apparent. As the beer warms, a light touch of banana ester becomes barely perceptible.

Appearance (2/3)
Medium golden in color with a light chill-haze that clears up as the beer warms. High carbonation levels (to style) push forth a large billowy white head that is constantly replenished and very attractive.

Flavor (14/20)
The potent ester character found on the nose is much more subdued on the palate. The beer strikes a nice balance between fermentation character, and a beautiful soft pilsner malt backbone. The Belgium pilsner malt has a honey-like sweetness that is very nice. There is a touch of herbal hop flavor coupled with a balancing medium level of hop bitterness. The flavor is very round and soft, but finishes quite dry with a slight mineral note.

Mouthfeel (4/5)
Bright prickly carbonation; perhaps a touch high for style. The beer is medium bodied and has a pleasant dry finish.

Overall Impression (7/10)
This is quite a pleasurable beer that changes dramatically as the beer warms in the glass and loses carbonation. At first, the beer is quite brash. After some time in the glass, the beer flavors round out, making for a softer, much more nuanced beer. In the end, the balance of fermentation flavors and very attractive soft pilsner malt character make this a solid rendition of the style.

Total: 34/50 Very Good

Note: This beer was entered into the Second Round of the National Homebrew Competition. It did not place in the competition, but it did receive a 36.