Sour Mistress Update


On November 11 (11/11/11) I brewed my first mixed-culture beer (Sour Mistress - full post here). In the subsequent weeks, the brewers yeast (Wyeast 3522) has done its job and converted most of the available sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The resulting beer is a mild but tasty bosch pear colored Belgian ale at around 6.4% abv. This beer was intentionally barely hopped to around 6 ibu's to accommodate the growth of its souring culture, a species of Lactobaccillus bacteria. Unfortunately, the fermentation temperature never got warm enough to really bring out any sourness from the bacteria, so I've come up with a plan.

I did a bit of research on Lactobaccillus and learned a few interesting things. Unlike ale yeast which prefer a fermentation temperature of around 60-75°F, this species of bacteria thrive in much warmer conditions. The temperature of a human intestine, 98.6°F, is ideal for growth and thus ideal for the production of lactic acid (the dominant contributor of acidity in sour beer). Unfortunately, fermenting anywhere near that hot would result in a very harsh, undrinkable beer. With this is mind, I decided to borrow a technique from Germans who use Lactobacillus to sour their Berliner-Weisse, a highly refreshing, tart low-alcohol wheat beer.

I constructed a makeshift incubator using an old submersible heater from my marine aquarium days (properly sanitized) and a 20 litre fermenter. Into this I added 4.75 litres of 10.75°P/1.043 wort (mashed earlier with 2lbs of Munich and 1lb of 2-Row), plus a fresh culture of Lactobaccillus (Wyeast 5335). The heater will ensure that the solution is held above 90°F for the next week. I measured the starting pH at 5.80 and will closely monitor both the gravity and pH of the solution for the next 7 days. This species is known to continue producing lactic acid up until the point at which it becomes fatal to itself - around 3.4 (malt vinegar is 3.5, so we're talking about a significantly tangy substance). I'm not sure what to kind of timeline to expect from this fermentation, so I'll be taking measurements frequently. Once soured, I'll blend this new wort with the original Sour Mistress to my desired acidity.

Munich Malt (Canada)
Two Row Malt (Canada)



Wyeast 5335 Lactobaccillus

OG 10.75°P / 1.043
Original pH 5.80
Holding at 94°F

UPDATE: The lacto culture took this wort from a pH of 5.80 to 3.29 in 3 days. It tastes very tart but surprisingly unoffensive. Going to cool it for a few days and see if I can get any of the cloudiness to dissipate, then blend with the blonde and bottle it.


Calgary Beer Culture


Calgary is a city that catches a lot of flack for its purported* lack of culture. We're not a particularly well liked city in Canada, and many of us Calgarians have a hard time shaking the 'intolerant cowboy' image we've been painted with. Our energy policies and proximity to enormous deposits of petroleum in the oilsands don't help much either - leading recently to significant international vitriol. Are we really so devoid of culture? And if so, what does it have to do with beer?

I was recently doing some research on craft beer drinker demographics and I came across some interesting facts. One particular study surveyed a population and divided participants into 5 categories: Non-drinkers, Wine drinkers (under $10/bottle), Wine drinkers (over $10/bottle), Mass-produced beer drinkers, and Craft beer drinkers. It showed that craft beer drinkers are more educated, earn more money and have less children than their Budweiser-drinking counterparts. Not surprising perhaps since the new craft beer movement is relatively young, but one area of the survey did catch my attention in particular. According to the data, craft beer drinkers are the most internet savvy of those surveyed, and the most likely to visit an art gallery or museum. There are always multiple ways to interpret this kind of data, but to me it seems to reveal core differences between these two markets. Not only do craft beer enthusiasts spend more time online, but many actively engage in beer discussion and in this way help shape the culture. Sure, Anheuser Busch sells an incredible amount of beer, but you'd be hard pressed to find anyone passionate enough about Budweiser to sit down and write an article on it. The relative affordability of craft beer as compared to wine also strongly shapes the culture, as does its lower alcohol content and smaller container size. Enthusiasts can easily drink 3 or 4 different beers in a night, a feat considerably more boozy and expensive with wine. Just as with mass produced lagers, appealing to the cultural sensibilities of craft beer enthusiasts is the best way to sell craft beer. All of this information is useful for breweries when determining a profile of their customers.

* Thanks to Manzo for this correction.

With this information in mind, lets take a look at what Calgary has to offer craft beer enthusiasts.

Big Rock
Founded by lawyer and entrepreneur Ed McNally in 1985, Big Rock is Alberta's most senior craft brewery and also the largest, with a production output of 45 million litres per year (a huge volume of beer by any standard - 360,000 bottles worth per day). If you live in western Canada, their beers are unavoidable and very popular on tap and in bottles. I don't think beer geeks would describe Big Rock's lineup as being particularly interesting, but they instead seem to focus on making competent, highly accessible beers that appeal to a huge market. Users at Beer Advocate rate their beers an average of 3.02/5.00, sentiments echoed on similar online communities. The bread and butter of the brewery is Traditional Ale or 'Trad', an English style brown ale featuring a fruity caramel backbone and signature mouthfeel imparted by Calgary's rather hard water supply. Grasshopper, an American style wheat ale is extremely popular on patios and is nearly always adorned with a lemon wedge. The lineup also features very approachable versions of American pale ale, rye ale, a lime flavored lager (I know, I know) and wee heavy. The brewery is also responsible for several lines of 'value' adjunct lagers for local bars and supermarket chains. Pedestrian or not, Big Rock's beers are an important part of Calgary's culinary landscape and are worth sampling.

Wild Rose
Named for Alberta's provincial flower, Calgary's Wild Rose Brewery opened in 1996 in the foothills industrial park but relocated to the preferable Currie Barracks in 2006. Producing only about 850,000 litres per year, the brewery features 7 year round ales as well as rotating seasonals in swingtop bottles. Velvet Fog is a hazy pale wheat beer with a light refreshing character popular on tap and in bottles throughout the city. Their Brown Ale strikes a nice balance between chocolate malt richness and crisp drinkability, and their WRaspberry Ale (get it?) is brewed with real berries, no syrups or 'flavorings'. Wild Rose IPA is sticky, woody and spicy with an appropriately bitter finish sure to please all but the most fanatic hop-heads. Their excellent Alberta Crude oatmeal stout is available only on tap and is well worth seeking out. Wild Rose receives an average review of 3.76/5.00 on Beer Advocate, with not a single beer ranking below 3. The best seasonal beer in Calgary is the exceptional Cherry Porter available around the holidays in sturdy 1 litre swingtop bottles. Expect decadent black forest cake character and a creamy, never-too-chewy mouthfeel. Wild Rose also taps a cask aged beer every Friday afternoon, usually matured with extra hops, spices, fruit or wood. For my money they are brewing the best beer in Calgary, though there's always room for improvement.

Brew Brothers
With their brewhouse in the heart of downtown, Brew Brothers have the best location for reaching beer geeks in Calgary. They offer 3 draught beers at a handful of local bars and restaurants including District Gastropub, which is attached to the brewery. Their quaffable Black Pilsner features a coffee-like roast character and a typical lager cleanliness. Ambush IPA is a perfectly acceptable English style pale ale with a biscuity caramel backbone and a pervasive, unoffensive bitterness. Tumblewheat is another approachable filtered wheat beer aimed at Calgary's ever expanding patio culture. The brothers have a comparatively small visibility and online reviews are sparse (though mostly positive), with an average rating of 3.78 on Beer Advocate.

Village Brewery
Founded at the tail end of 2011 by a small coalition of Big Rock alumni, Village Brewery is Calgary's youngest - and they're poised to shake things up. Their first offering is Village Blonde, a crystal clear pale ale with a lager-like cleanliness. The oddly named Blacksmith India Black Ale is neither black nor India, but instead a nicely balanced and tasty brown ale (a popular style with all of Village's local competitors). To me, Blacksmith feels like it's having an identity crisis as it lacks the characteristics commonly associated with the style of Black IPA (a roasty base with assertive hop presence), but it's a good beer nonetheless. It's also important to note that I drank likely the first batch ever of Blacksmith so the recipe may yet to be modified. Village also owns the city's first growler system in which customers purchase an attractive half gallon jug which can be filled with the beer of their choice for a mere $9. A self proclaimed 'community brewery', Village donates 10% of their profits to support local artists and their beautiful tasting room doubles as an art gallery. The potential for growth in craft beer is enormous and Village's timing couldn't be better - I'm expecting big things in 2012.


Christopher Hitchens


Christopher Hitchens died last night. I'm hesitant to use the expression 'rest in peace', but I'd just like to say that this man has been an important figure in my life and helped me shape my identity. Though his body is dead, his ideas and intellectual vigor will live on for a very long time.

"We'll take it from here, Hitch."


Sour Mistress


Last weekend I brewed my first ever sour beer, a mid gravity blonde ale fermented with Belgian yeast and a Lactobaccillus culture. I was a little nervous going in as I've never worked with more than one culture at a time, but everything went quite smoothly. Brewing is a continuous learning process and I feel like since last Saturday, I've learned more about Lacto cultures. If I had known then what I know now, I'd of done a couple things differently but I still have confidence in this recipe. At its core this is a fairly typical Belgian blonde ale, with a few simple considerations made to accommodate the bacterial culture.

Sour Mistress

Pilsner Malt , 1.5srm (France)
Munich Malt, 6-10srm (Canada)
Dextrose/Corn Sugar (Canada)

Northern Brewer, 10.3% A.A. (Germany)

Wyeast 3522, Belgian Ardennes

Wyeast 5335, Lactobaccillus

The grains underwent a simple single-infusion mash at 150°F (65.5°C) for 90 minutes. I want this beer to finish quite dry, so a long mash at relatively low temperatures was used to encourage high fermentability. Dextrose was added to the wort at the start of the boil, which will also dry out the final product. Typically, sugars are added at the start of the boil to encourage kettle caramelization, but I don't think this will be much of a factor here due to the short boil time. Lactobaccillus is sensitive to the presence of hop oils, so most sour beer brewers recommend very low levels of hopping (<10 IBU). This could lead to an undrinkably sweet beer, but sour beer is balanced by lactic acidity rather than hop bitterness. Northern Brewer hops have a neutral flavor and high levels of bittering oils, so only a tiny amount were required. This beer was hopped to 7 IBU during its 30 minutes in the kettle. Since Lacto cultures grow best at warmer temperatures, I pitched a 500ml 3522  starter with the bacteria at the high end of the yeast's range (71°F). A warmer fermentation will also encourage production of the fruity esters and spicy phenolic compounds Belgian yeast are renowned for. The wort's sugar content was measured at 16° Plato / 1.065, almost exactly where I predicted it to be. In my experience, Belgian strains seem to ferment quite vigorously and I'd be surprised if this batch took more than 5 days. The Lacto culture complicates things a bit, and I may need to increase the temperature later to encourage more lactic acid production. I'd love to be able to bottle this within 90 days, but sour brewing requires great patience.


Beer Bugs


Over the past few weeks I've been focusing my beer obsession on Lambic, a spontaneously fermented sour style originating in (where else?) Belgium. The bizarre world of wild fermentation is fascinating and associated with extreme complexity of flavor and aroma, unusual brewing practices, unpredictable bacterial cultures, and a necessity for zenlike patience. Lambic brewing is interesting for all the reasons it differs from modern day beer production.

For as long as I can remember, the disinfectant industry has been talking shit about bacteria. Brands brag of the lethality of their product in the arena of TV advertisements - "kills 99.99% of bacteria". Consumers are encouraged to drench their homes and bodies in antimicrobial chemicals in a desperate attempt at sterilizing the world. The truth of the matter is that bacteria permeates our entire existence - every surface, material, breath of air, animal, mineral and vegetable on Earth are home to bewildering microbe populations - and 99% are benign.  The human body is comprised of approximately 100 trillion cells and is home to ten times that amount (1.0 × 1015) of bacterial cells. The food and drink industries are understandably wary of bacteria in their products. Modern brewers spend a significant portion of their day cleaning and sanitizing equipment to ensure consistency in their beers. As one brewer put it: "We clean, then brew, then clean, then repeat." From the simplest to the most sophisticated brewing facilities in the world, extreme attention to sanitation is paramount. With the exception of brewers yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae & Saccharomyces pastorianus, microorganisms are unwelcome in the vast majority of breweries.

 The world of Lambic brewing is very different. These impassioned traditionalists produce beer entirely at the whim of the fickle microorganisms indigenous to their region. Wort is an extremely attractive spawning ground for the local yeasts and bacteria - high in sugar, oxygen and nutrients and devoid of alcohol or competitive organisms. This solution comes out of the brewhouse and is exposed to the elements in an open top vessel known as a 'coolship', where it sits overnight. During this cooling period, airborne microorganisms are brought in through open windows, where they colonize the wort and begin the (very) long process of spontaneous wild fermentation. While every environment is home to dozens of microorganisms, we'll focus on the four most important for Lambic brewing.

Saccharomyces cerevisiae
Commonly known as brewers yeast, these unicellular fungi consume fermentable sugars in wort and produce alcohol, carbon dioxide and a plethora of flavor compounds. No other ingredient has a bigger impact on the final characteristics of beer. Dozens of strains exist and behave distinctly from one another, each producing their own unique cocktail of flavor compounds. Many strains are inseparable from a particular style of beer. The multitude of flavors produced by S. cerevisae in particular are enormous. Lager beer is fermented at lower temperatures by a different species, S. Pastorianus. In a typical brewing scenario, a single strain is isolated using sterile lab techniques, but a spontaneous fermentation may involve several. Saccharomyces is latin for 'Sugar Fungus', though its role in alcohol production was not understood until Louis Pasteur's groundbreaking publications in the late 1800's.

Colloquially referred to as 'Brett', this genus of wild yeast is both loved and feared in equal regard by brewers and winemakers around the world. Noted for the distinct funkiness it can impart, with flavors and aromas frequently described as 'earthy, barnyard, floral, wet hay, wet leaves, wet leather, and horse blanket', its not hard to see why this could be viewed as a pest in most styles of beer. Used most notably by the Trappist monks at Abaye Notre Dame D'Orval in my personal favorite beer, Orval. Two species are used intentionally in brewing, both capable of contributing a slight acidity as they produce small amounts of acetic acid (vinegar). Despite its abundance in nature, Brett shows great unpredictability in beer production and remains challenging for brewers.

A genus of bacteria who produce lactic acid from sugar and an important player when producing real Lambic beer, contributing a tart acidity. An infected beer is said to have 'sarcina sickness' and often features a thin 'skin' or pellicle on the surface of the wort, as well as a polysaccharide 'rope' weaving throughout it in a visually bizarre yet oddly beautiful display. One species, Pediococcus damnosus has evolved a considerable tolerance to the hop compounds (isomerized alpha acids) that typically act as as preservatives in beer, and is widely considered the most common beer contaminant. Some species produce notable amounts of diacetyl, another common beer adulterant which contributes a silky mouthfeel as well as buttery flavors. An essential component of sauerkraut, some pickles and sausages. This genus grows best at a low pH (4-5) and in a low-oxygen environment, such as finished beer in a fermenter.

A rod shaped genus of lactic acid producing bacteria, widely feared by brewers. These pesky organisms are found in large quantity on the husks of all malted grains, but are typically destroyed during the boil. An important contributor of acidity in many styles of sour beer, including Berliner-Weisse (where it is added by brewers intentionally), Lambic, Oud Bruin and even some Belgian Witber. Guinness is said to use small quantities of lactic acid in their flagship stout where it contributes complexity and helps balance the roasted flavors of black malts. If an infection is significant, the beer may become quite hazy. Lactobacillus is the genus responsible for the transformation of milk into yogurt, as well as contributing the 'sour' in sourdough breads.  It grows best under high temperatures (75-85°F) and a pH of 4.0-5.0.

I brewed my first sour beer a few days ago with strains of Saccharomyces and Lactobacillus, and I hope to do a blog post on it soon. The brewday went very smoothly and was scarcely different from many others, so I'm curious to see how the fermentation and conditioning/aging periods will differ. Unfortunately, making sour beer requires considerable patience - I don't expect to bottle this for 5 months or more.

Beer: Hopsickle Imperial Ale


Brewer: Moylan's Brewery, California
Style: Double India Pale Ale
700ml @ 9.2% Abv

Any craft beer enthusiast would agree that the current landscape of our hobby is dominated by one style: India Pale Ale. It was the first 'extreme' beer style and it arose as such out of necessity, not as a stylistic choice. The higher than average levels of alcohol and high hop content helped to preserve the beer on long voyages from England to its colonies, particularly India. The American craft beer scene built on this concept, adding more and more hops and increasing its alcoholic strength to produce today's diverse and often exciting IPA catalogue. Sounds great to me. I've enjoyed the bitter fruits of this burgeoning community, and through it have discovered countless world class beers. From easy-drinking, refreshing session examples to assertive, challenging double IPA's, this scene has produced it all.

"...once you get locked into a serious drug-collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can."
- Hunter S. Thompson

With that quote from a wiser man than myself, my IPA praise rant is over. I think the problem with any system that encourages a push towards the 'extreme' is that the original objective can become confused or even lost altogether. I fear that may have happened with this offering from Moylan's brewery in California.

This Hopsickle pours a rather appetizing copper color with a resilient but lightly packed head. Double IPA's are noted for their bold and complex aromas, but here the Hopsickle falls short. On the nose its a heavy and sweet cookie-like barley malt with only faint spicy hop notes. As it warms, the smells become slightly more floral but never as pronounced as I'd like. Spicy honey on biscuits.

Texturally, this beer satisfies. A unexpectedly lightweight body is eager to turn creamy with even the slightest encouragement from the tongue. Perfect for a heavily flavored beer, there's only a light carbonation. The absurd amount of hops make themselves known here first - a very oily beer.

The first taste signals mirror the nose - sweet baked cookies and syrupy malt. A moment later, the hops come in. This is the most bitter and astringent thing I have ever tasted. Three hop varieties crescendo into the senses and stay there for a long, long time. Imagine sucking on a cigar made from Canadian pine needles and you'll have a pretty good idea of whats going on here. The one advantage I can imagine here is that the high alcohol content goes totally unnoticed.

I love bitter beers the way I love salty food. I can quite comfortably eat an entire bag of salty rippled chips and I love to dress dishes with dark soy sauce - but would I want to spend an evening sucking rock salt? Probably not. The problem with Hopsickle is that there isn't an interesting enough base of flavor of handle the absurdly bitter element. I'm sure some west-coast style IPA enthusiasts will call me a sissy for this, but the bitterness of this beer is just overwhelming. If you've ever had a dinner that was too heavily seasoned or garnished with too much lemon, its the same idea. Moylan's decision to include a grotesque amount of bittering hops without the complimentary flavoring and aroma components just didn't work for me. My eyes squint down to the last drops (yeah, I finished it).

The Verdict: An unpleasantly bitter and poorly balanced extreme beer.

Food Pairing: Rock salt.


Beer: World Wide Stout


Brewer: Dogfish Head, Delaware
Style: Imperial Stout
355ml @ 18.00% Abv
I'd like to start this entry off by apologizing for my laziness as of late. Its been a long while since I've done an entry. Anyways, I have a rather extensive backlog of interesting beers to upload here and I promise I'll be getting around to it now. Onto this article.

Dogfish Head might be my favorite American brewery. This is a bit of an obvious choice for any craft beer enthusiast, akin to calling The Beatles your favorite band. If craft beer were rock n' roll, Dogfish Head's Sam Calagione would be John Lennon, so it seems the comparison works here. His innovations in brewing and particularly in the world of IPA really helped energize the craft brewing scene not only in his native America, but all over the world.

So when I learned that Sam had created the world's strongest stout (and for a time the worlds strongest beer), I really wanted to try it. Not only does World Wide Stout weigh in at 18% alcohol by volume, but is also reputed for having one of the highest calorie contents of any drink ever tested (660 calories in 355ml). Sam jokes of keeping a bottle in his vehicle first aid kit, 'If you got snowed in, you could live on one bottle for a week'.

World Wide Stout is impenetrable to light, with the viscosity of hot motor oil. I've described beers as opaque in the past, but this is the first time the description fits so literally. This stuff makes a shade 5 welding lens seem like a foggy morning in Vancouver. A frothy brown head makes only a brief appearance before sinking into the malty quicksand below.

If you were intimidated by the aroma, dare not tread any further. This beer is an olfactory juggernaut. Enormously heavy notes of booze and licorice dominate at first. Then comes anise, cardamom, black pepper & fennel - all with a sweet leatheryness overtop. As intricate and layered an aroma as I've ever known.

A tablespoon poured into the mouth reveals this beer's ridiculously smooth and syrupy texture. It rolls across my tongue frictionless like black liquid silk. The flavors are at first reminiscent of port - assertively sweet barley with heavy support from warming alcohol. Here the flavor mimics the aroma - more leather and licorice, then concludes with a sharp tang and a long haunting bitterness. In true Dogfish style, this beer manages to balance a stupifying sweetness with an equally epic bitterness. A truly gargantuan beverage.

I'd say Sam Calagione accomplished what he set out for here. To describe this as anything other than devastating would be an understatement. Its sumptuous mouthfeel and staggering complexity of flavor is nothing short of incredible. For me it's too sweet and boozy to be classified as a real stout, but that shouldn't dissuade anyone's interest.

Verdict: An impressively complex and challenging barley booze.

Food Pairing: Vanilla ice cream.