Empyreal Brew Day

Empyrean Brewing Company in the Haymarket district of downtown Lincoln.

Empyrean is an old-fashioned word meaning ‘the heavens.’ I admit to having to look it up. Empyreal is the adjective meaning ‘heavenly.’ And heavenly was generally my experience, Thursday, while I was able to brew my Dark Horse Münchner Dunkel recipe with Empyrean brewmaster Rich Chapin.

The power of positive, peripheral thinking is what got me to this opportunity. The facts in the case are as follows: it was my first time entering the Empyrean Beer Quest competition. Being new to town, I was unfamiliar with Lincoln’s water chemistry. I did not have expectations about how wooing of the public vote took place, nor did I have very much time to make the beer. All entries had to be lagers and I only had five weeks.

I analyzed these facts while wearing dirty underwear. Though it may seem at least a non sequitur, if not a downright disgusting image, the underwear thing is symbolic of letting go of expectation. It comes from a long ago discovery that when I just went out with dirty clothes I was more likely to meet up with attractive, friendly ladies than when I bathed and primped. Maybe it was pheromones left unwashed. But I think it was likely due to opening up a well of possibility in the universe, rather than trying to constrain outcome. There was something about putting distance between me and success that actually brought me closer to it. This is the peripheral vision part of the philosophy… I mean, not looking straight ahead at the positive outcome I desired, but scanning the horizon, ready to notice that cosmic opportunity I had denied direct focus. Have you lost a contact lens, and after much searching given up, only to find the damn thing the moment you stopped looking for it. That’s the phenomenon.

So this is where I put myself as I considered the aforementioned facts.  It would be a beer best suited to using undoctored  Lincoln water, therefore a dark lager. It needed to be of average strength given the time available, but have a rich flavor attractive to all sorts of beer drinkers. That left me with either a schwarzbier or a Munich dunkel. The latter is a little sweeter and showcases decoction mashing, so that’s the beer I chose. In a sense, none of this was up to me, the facts put me there. Then again, I might have come to the same conclusion by just making an intuitive decision. We can never know.

I have heard a lot of stories about Beer Quest. They range from how the event is jury rigged to how the winning beer brewed on the 15 barrel system will never taste like the original. Axioms and idioms have appeared in the parlance of the local brewers. “You’re better to finish first or eleventh, than anywhere in between.” That’s because the winning brewer gets a free keg of the scaled-up beer, and brewers finishing out of the top ten don’t have to share their beer with anyone.

Based on this one experience, I can tell you that the contest has rules. Some are abided by hard and fast, others lack a referee. There are inequities and home field advantages. Like a political race, you can induce voters to vote for you, the brewer, rather than for the best beer. It is a real life contest. It is fallible. The frustrations it engenders are synonymous with those in everyday life: when your favorite team loses the homecoming game, when the wrong candidate gets elected, when every restaurant in town serves the same spinach and artichoke glop. You are not going to change the occurrence of these things, anymore than I could change the brewing system my double decoction dunkel was brewed on.

Base malt for the recipe was 588 pounds of Munich malt - toasty, bittersweet loveliness.

After a two-temperature mash program, the mash is transferred to the lauter tun.

The first runnings from the lauter tun enter the bottom of the kettle. The chestnut color and malty aroma were much like my homebrewed version.

Once all the sweet wort was in the kettle, Rich took a sample for measuring the sugar content with a refractometer. So far, so good. Looks like we'll hit our target gravity.

In go the hops - French Strisselspalt - just like my recipe called for. Soon a wonderful lemon aroma captured our imaginations.

The wort was whirlpooled, then chilled right to 55 degrees. It travelled underground to the adjacent building where the fermentation vessels are located. Here Rich pushes the beer, a sizable yeast pitch (in the keg), and adds oxygen.

Here's where the Dark Horse is now busily fermenting. In a few weeks I'll be sitting at the bar trying it out! Hope you will be, too.

If anything, the trials and tribulations of Beer Quest mimic real life. For me, it was a personal test of attitude and vector. For others it may be a frustrating series of hems and haws trying to get outside the box of expectation and entitlement they’ve constructed for themselves. I know only this: that the more I know about beer, the less I know, and that as I contemplate what to brew for the next Beer Quest I will burn my road map and start a new journey from scratch. Winning is not everything. I’ll settle for 2nd through 10th.

Cheers! TPJ

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Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – Recap

It has been too much lately, reading the exploits of my friends who only seem to frolic, never work. My old buddy Rodrigo reportedly has some sort of high-tech job, but all I see on Facebook are videos uploaded from his surfboard-mounted digital movie camera. Another friend, Phil, now living in Oregon goes snowboarding down Mt. Hood when he’s not doing… Come to think of it. What does he do?

Though I have been known to strap on snowshoes, I’m not too keen on drowning in the surf or ending up a crumpled pile of fleshy bones after suffering the effects of gravity. This week I goofed off in my own way. I cooked, I brewed, I ate, I laughed.

I even got in an argument with a drunk guy and called him by a piece of digestive system anatomy… to his face. I’m opinionated, but I rarely share that epithet in mixed company. We made up. He bought me beer. What will our next meeting bring?

It’s Sunday now and I’m basking in the success of being in my own, indefinable way, the champion of un-work.

Here is my nugatory rundown of the week.

  • Monday I ate lunch and contemplated Tuesday.

  • Tuesday was the day for the chocolate and beer. I kept my fingers crossed that chocolates would come from Lincoln’s Chocolatier Blue and they did! The beers were a variable bunch provided by a local distributor. By his own admission, the rep stated he hadn’t much experience with chocolate and beer – and it showed. But the deeper message that was planted in my brain had to do with the biases inherent in distributor-chosen selections. I feel a bitch session coming on that I’ll have to post in my Gripefruit section very soon! However, there were two delicious pairings, both with Weyerbacher beer (Easton, PA):
  1. Belgian-styled quadrupel Quad with the holiday spice chocolate (“You got your apricot in my custard!” “You got your cloves in my peaches!”)
  2. Rum Soaked Currant praline with Weyerbacher Tiny (“Bing, bang, bada bing bing bang.”)

  • Wednesday I brewed my traditional Baltic Porter,  a dark, potent lager that will cold condition towards perfection (what, can’t I aim high?) for a couple of months. Thanks to my new book Yeast (White and Zainasheff, Brewers Publications), my yeast cell counts were (say it like Carl Sagan) in the “billions and billions.” Within six hours of pitching the fermenters were rollicking and spewing stuff that only a homebrewer could love.

  • It was also a good time to save some spent grains from the brewing. I had an idea, actually I thought it to be a revelation, that I could make pumpernickel rye soft pretzels. The trick to using spent grains in bread is to purée them in a blender with some warm water. Otherwise you end up picking coarse grain husks from your teeth. The recipe included stone-ground rye flour, molasses, caraway seeds and a few standard bread ingredients. I won’t post a recipe here, not because the pretzels weren’t good – they were delicious – but because a black pretzel has a rather unappetizing appearance. Judge for yourself…

  • While the infamous pretzel dough was rising I met up with beer maestro Jason to try out a few more of our cheese pairings. We had settled on certain cheeses but were still searching for the specific beers to knock it out of the park. We settled on a date (March 4) and number of tickets to sell (50) and we are sure to sell out early. There is a practical size to a cheese-beer tasting; even this one will have 250 measured portions of cheese, the same number of beers to dispense, plus accouterments. Then everything has to be at the right temperature. I hope we’re getting prep help the day of…
  • Thursday rolled around and there were still pots and pans to clean from beer and pretzel operations. I put off the cheese making to Saturday. But I did stick with the plan to attend a six course beer dinner at a Greek restaurant called The Parthenon. If you read my previous thoughts on beer dinners, you know that I believe it is a good idea to have some moderate strength beers in the mix so you don’t turn into a “pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course.” What I failed to estimate were the portions of food. The first course of spice-rubbed chicken drumsticks pressure-cooked to fall-off-the-bone tenderness, sitting atop couscous flavored with lemon juice and blanched almonds was huge. What would pass for a chicken tagine entrée in some Moroccan restaurants was more food than an entire upscale beer dinner. By the fifth course, we were slung over the back of our chairs, our arms akimbo and eyes at half mast. Awesome, filling, soul-warming food. Then the soup bowl sized crème brulée, redolent with vanilla seeds. It had the consistency of melting ice cream. Here’s a similar recipe with a discussion on the key ingredient: vanilla bean paste. Oh mercy. Yes, if you’re wondering, we ate the whole thing.
  • Friday, is it Friday yet? Coasting just a bit. I spent most of the day researching an article for All About Beer magazine. Something about ancient beers and their cultural and ceremonial importance. Now, that is work. Sorry. Didn’t mean to mention the “w” word. I was trying to convince you that I am really just a professional goof-off. Back to being indolent… I made a batch of cider. Although I follow my own recipe, I’m going to let you in on a guilty little secret

  • Saturday – the Day of the Satur. I pause to imagine I know what a Satur is… some sort of man-beast mythic creature. Perhaps the body of a cow, a chalky green hide of lizard scales, angel wings, and man’s head that looks like Wallace. Or maybe I was channeling my inner cheese god. This day was for blue cow’s milk cheese in the British tradition, i.e. Stilton.

  • Saturday night it snowed again. A fair dose. After an hour and forty minutes of shoveling against the drifting snow, icicles on my eyebrows, I returned to the warm interior. No hot chocolate tonight. I have invented a new hot toddy that appeals to my woodland upbringing, my Scottish heritage, and, well, a desire to consume alcohol. I call my drink Woodsman’s Fly Dope because of its memorable aroma. First I make a big mug of strong tea using Lapsang Souchong tea. The tea has a huge pine/juniper smoke aroma and flavor. It brews a deep rust-colored tea with substantial body. So much body, in fact, that a wee dram of Scotch whisky is needed to lighten it up just a bit. The smoked tea and the peaty Scotch merge. Wisps of campfire memories wend their way through your skull like the figments they represent. Sleep will come, and dreams will weave my week into one confusing mural.

So, Rodrigo and Phil, right back atcha!

Cheers, TPJ.

Chocolate, Cheese & Beer – What a Week!

What a Bohemian week it will be… I’m reminded just how cool Lincoln-town really is.

Thankfully a homebrewing homie turned me on to the Nebraska Beer Blog, maintained by a guy named Nick Spies. He keeps up on all the area events, of which there are many. I’m already in training for Omaha’s Extreme Beer Fest coming up next month.

Tonight I’ll be at one of the area’s best package stores, The Still, for a chocolate and beer tasting. It remains to be seen what beers and what chocolate. The distributor conducting the tasting is from Omaha, so the chocolates may not be coming from Lincoln’s newest treasure: Chocolatier Blue. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. CB’s chocolates rely on Italian dark chocolate and fresh, local fillings from organic cream to roasted filberts to pears and bay leaf… world class pralines and I can ride my bike there!

Exceptional cream is blended with organic butter and 70% dark chocolate for a rich ganache then encased with a dark chocolate shell. (Courtesy: Chocolatier Blue)

Then tomorrow, after an early start on brewing (I’m cooking up a baltic porter by double decoction), I’ll be heading out to Bricktop. Bricktop is a dance club at night, run by a cool guy who escaped from Patchogue, Long Island.

Bricktop owner Dave loves 80s music, beer, girls, and of course, the Huskers.

In the early evenings, before the doom-tah-doom-tah-doom-tah starts, the place is called the Derailleur Tap Room and caters to beer connoisseurs. DTR’s beer master of ceremonies, Jason McLaughlin, and I are planning a cheese-beer pairing event in the near future. We’re going over a few of the pairings with beer fresh from the taps.

I’ve been studiously developing pairings with imported cheeses sourced from The Saucy Cook and some local gems from nearby creamery Branched Oak Farm. Beer can pair magnificently with cheese – uh – much of the time. It is not as forgiving as some beer apostles may lead you to believe, however. Some of my attempts to date have brought out a stark metallic note in the cheese or accentuated oxidation in the beer. But many of the pairings exhibit dramatic synergies that release hidden flavors in both the beer and the cheese. Stay tuned for the specific pairings!

One cheese I know we will feature is this lovely sheep's milk cheese from the French side of the Pyrénées: Ossau-Iraty. Sweet, nutty, semi-hard with slight vesicles.

Thursday morning I’ll be making cheese – this time an enriched cow’s milk blue. I’m shooting for something like Saint Agur. Mine will be whole, vat pasteurized cow’s milk with some whole cream added. The blue mold (Penicillium roqueforti) is introduced during the acidification (the first step in cheese making) and will take off after the finished cheese is pierced with a sterile pick and matures for two to four months in a cool conditioning room.

The "melts-in-your-mouth" enriched cow's milk blue from france - Saint Agur. (Source: http://www.relishcaterers.co.uk)

Then in the evening I’ll be attending a six-course beer dinner at the area’s renowned Greek restaurant, The Parthenon. Thankfully we will not have to choke down salty, husky Greek beer. I look forward to meeting whoever masterminded this dinner because they have had the good sense not to choose a lineup of big beers. All too often, when strong beers are served at this sort of thing I have seen a group otherwise eager beer lovers turned into a pod of beached whales by the fourth or fifth course. Beers of modest strength with a good depth of flavor are what you need. That’s why I’m looking forward to the main course: grilled leg of lamb with ancho chile marinade and saffron orzo, served with Sprecher Black Bavarian-styled lager.

For Friday? I don’t know, might make a cider. Or if my venison connection comes in, it could be venison sausage with juniper and allspice.

Cheers! TPJ

The Reinheitsgebot is Nonsense

There is a lot to be said for tradition, more so than ever with the current trends of cultural homogenization and closures of local businesses. And while it is often portrayed as tantamount to tradition, the famed German purity law is hooey, plain and simple.

Its relevance in focusing the styles of Germany has been been as instructive and destructive as 13 years of Prohibition were in this country. Gose (pron: gōz-eh, a sour beer made with naturally salty water), breyhan (sour wheat beer), grätzer bier (highly hopped, pale, smoked wheat beer), and many varieties of fruit or spiced beers – gone! Some of these lost styles are only now being made again in a few of the more risk-tolerant brewpubs.

I’m not going to get emotional about it, no not me, not like the rabid advocates of this misappropriated and antiquated policy. But it is fair time we let the cat out of the bag.

The Reinheitsgebot (pronounced something like: HRHINE-hites-ghe-boat) literally means “purity order.” However it was not until 1908 that that term gained use as a title. Originally is was called the “surrogate prohibition” decree. It was laid down in April of 1516 by the Dukes Wilhelm IV and Ludwig X of Bavaria. But the concept is even older. A similar document, predating the other by over 80 years, was uncovered north of Bavaria in Thuringia in 1999.

The order has since been touted as a way of protecting the wheat and rye for the baking industry, ensuring strange ingredients were kept out of beer, or even as a consumer protection act, but it holds darker secrets. As far as beer quality goes, the code does not require traditional methods like decoction, nor eschew off-flavors like diacetyl. Growers are free to use pesticides, and brewers can use chemical additives and chemically extracted hop oils. No, the “purity order” doesn’t say anything about healthfulness. In fact, organic beer producers pose a real threat to the house of cards upon which this marketing phenomenon has been built.

Brewers had been using wheat and rye and medicinal herbs and mushrooms in their beer. What is now Germany was a region of rich and varied brewing traditions that had been documented as far back as “the Holy Roman Empire.” Why worry about what brewers put in their beer? If you make a beer with weeds from your yard and rye with fungus growing on it (ergot is a rye rust from which LSD was first isolated), people will either like or not. If they like it they’ll come back for more. If they don’t, well, the brewer had better find a different line of work. Then again, maybe that’s the sensibility of the modern free market, and as we’ll see, the Reinheitsgebot is not at all about a free market system.

Only a single stanza of the decree deals with ingredients – the rest is about price controls. In the highly touted ingredient portion, the decree stipulates that beer must be made exclusively from barley and hops and water. One commonly hears about how yeast hadn’t yet been described by Louis Pasteur, so it was fine that yeast was left off the list. But even brewers in this dark time knew that one cropped the barm from one batch to the next. No, there was deeper meaning in the Reinheitsgebot…

One way to think about it is that the Dukes had created a more restrictive definition for the word “beer,” along with the provision that anything not meeting the definition could be confiscated by the authorities without compensation to the brewer.

Modern historians endlessly quote one another, saying that the underlying reason for the rule was to ensure that there was adequate wheat and rye for making bread. Frankly, bread, beer, what’s the difference? – they are both hearty, nourishing comestibles and generally immune to Medieval sanitation problems.

There was no way the people were going without their beer, so if the overlords said this is the way it must be, you might as well roll with it. Besides, if you didn’t abide by the code the authorities would confiscate your beer without remuneration. What these historians fail to mention is who owned all the barley fields. You guessed it, the Dukes. The original Reinheitsgebot was market protection for the wealthy. And you thought American corporate lobbying was a new idea?

 

The Reinheitsgebot has been modified throughout history - the current definition bears little resemblance to the original. (Source: google, frequency of historical dates with regard to the rule.)

As time went on the rule was variously massaged, abandoned, lost and rediscovered, until it ultimately arrived in its modern form – as a shallow marketing tool to help push claims of traditionalism behind your beer product. How could I posit such claims? Well consider the following, which I’ve knocked down to only a handful of points.

The original decree affected only the feudal region of Bavaria. Later, as Germany began its long crawl from 300 fiefdoms towards today’s single nation, Franconia and Thuringia were added, and the Reinheitsgebot came along for the ride. But after a couple of centuries one heard much less about the decree. It became seen more or less as a rule for pricing and taxation on beer.

Almost from the beginning the rule was gradually modified. In the 17th century a provision to allow brewing with wheat was added, but only members of the aristocracy were allowed to do so. Reorganization in 1803 resulting from the Napoleonic wars saw the famed brewing cities of Bamberg, Nürnberg, and Bayreuth added to a growing Bavarian state. The Reinheitsgebot now expanded northwards. Later, at the turn of the 20th century, the states of Baden and Württemberg in southwest Germany were added.

But back in 1810 Bavaria’s Crown Prince Ludwig married Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen in Munich. Five days after the royal wedding the commoners were invited to a field for horse racing and, it goes without saying, beer drinking. The party grew into an annual commercial enterprise, and by 1818 mercantile beer stalls had appeared.

The grand wedding reception had inaugurated the Oktoberfest tradition. Some say the Reinheitsgebot had been lost in obscurity and largely ignored for the previous couple of centuries. With the rise of Prince Ludwig, a descendant of the of the original Ludwig X, talk of the Reinheitsgebot re-ensued.

The latest ode to the Reinheitsbegot: the Kuchlbauer museum in Abensberg, Germany. It houses an exhibition on the German "beer purity" tradition.

So the Reinheitsgebot’s influence grew throughout Bavaria and other German city-states. In 1919, at the close of WWI, further consolidation took place when the Weimer Republic was formed. As a condition of joining, Bavaria, the largest single participant, asserted that the purity law had to apply to everyone else in the Republic. Even some other countries, Greece and Sweden for example, adopted the standard. In the most amazing display of vibrato, Germany even tried to leverage their participation in the EU with the five-centuries old ball and chain. But in 1987 the EU ruled it an obstacle to commerce. Which it always was.

Some American brewpubs and microbreweries even began touting the rule as a marketing device. It’s not so surprising. We’re victims of the preferential retelling of history and we love a hero. Just as we still think Benjamin Franklin was a great and mighty man of all seasons. No, he was a misogynist, turned-with-the-winds kind of guy who took credit for the work of those around him. But we really do admire that portly gentleman dangling a key from a kite string, don’t we? Now even Ben Franklin is a marketing device with the oft-misquoted “Beer is living proof that God loves us…” bit.

This is not to say that there aren’t other obstacles to beer commerce and that megalithic global corporations don’t dominate the market. There are, and they do. But at least the Reinheitsgebot is finally being seen for what it is: antiquated, price fixing, trade control, and pap marketing.

I’m not alone in thinking the Reinheitsgebot has outlived its usefulness:

[Note: with this piece I am inaugurating a new category on the Palate Jack called Gripefruit – my bitter editorials. Don’t fear, there will always be sweet stories to temper the bitterness.]

Cheers! TPJ

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