Monthly Archives: August 2012

Growing Hops: Dipping Our Hands Into Agriculture

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Written By The Van Houte

the hops are coming

Thanks to the forced entry into the homebrew hobby by the main author of this blog, I like most have continued to advance this passion over the 5+ years that I have been brewing.  Transitioning from extract to all-grain to larger batches etc., it wasn’t till I left NYC that I got the opportunity to add the next phase of homebrewing:  hop farming.

The growing man: uncle James

I have always loved to grow things, but my current location fortuitously puts me 15 minutes from our family farm in Schaghticoke NY (it is the correct spelling) and the current location of our new business of growing 4 varieties of hops:  Cascade (2nd-year), Sterling, Mt. Hood, and Zeus (all 1st-year).

new girls

Two years ago we decided to devote a small plot out of 4+ acres available to growing hops.  The first plantings were 6 Cascade hop rhizomes purchased from Northern Brewer.  I knew cascade hops would grow well with little fuss in this area and chose them to start.  That first year we had better than expected cone development considering the first two years are really devoted to developing the root system of the plant, with full yields happening after the 2nd year.  With these I made a dry-hopped, estate bottled IPA with mixed results (mostly because it was my first time actually making an IPA).  Needless to say, it was a good learning experience and we wanted to plant more varieties to expand our portfolio.

Last year we bought 3 new varieties: Sterling, Mt. Hood, and Zeus.  We were debating whether or not to actually buy the “Noble” hop varieties as we brew mostly lagers, but ultimately decided on hybrids knowing that they would still grow well in NY climate and be more resistant to pests.  They also have larger yields, which is always nice.  I also wanted a high alpha acid hop and settled on Zeus although never actually brewing with them.  In addition we trumped our original trellis system and constructed 22-foot tall trellises using maple saplings.

The Trellis system

22 feet high is the normal standard for hop fields and we were excited, except for the fact that our 2nd-year Cascades grew at an astounding rate: 2 feet in one day was our maximum growth rate that we have calculated thus far!  The 2nd-years grew so fast that they outgrew their original 14-foot high trellises that they were trained on and before we could train them onto the new 22-foot trellises. This proved disastrous in terms of our yield, as the plants will begin to grow downward in search of a new line and then back up.  It’s a learning experience right?  We still have more cascade cones than one brewer would need.  The first year plants didn’t grow as well as the cascade plants did in their first year with the exception of the Zeus variety.  The Zeus plants are on par with the cascade plants.  We did have a scare regarding pests.  We have seen aphids and caterpillars, along with what might be certain fungi, and during one check-up, our hops did not look happy.  As newbies to hop farming, we didn’t know what exactly was negatively impacting our plants.  We had a very dry July, and luckily August has had more precipitation and the plants have bounced back.  Therefore it seems that pests or lack of nutrients were not the cause of our plants being unhappy, especially since we try to be as organic as possible.

up, up and away to 22 ft

The Sterling and Mt. Hood varieties have been more troublesome and they don’t seem to want to grow upward.  We were confused by this but basically have concluded that these varieties just might be a bit slower the first year than the other varieties.  We see no issues with pests, or water, nutrition, etc. at this point.  No matter how often/hard we tried to train them to strings, they just remained “bushy”, with a few exceptions.  Hopefully they will be happier next year and demonstrate more “typical” upward growth that we saw in the cascade variety.  Sadly, it doesn’t look like we will see cones from the Sterling or the Mt. Hood this year.  Of course there is still time left.
Growing hops now for 2 years has been an interesting journey.  Obviously its great in that we get to use our own hops, dried or fresh, straight from the farm, but it is also a lot of work to train and maintain the plants.  We continue to educate ourselves in this practice and try to consult with professionals in the field.  We are also in contact and are following those pushing to make NY State #1 again in hop production.  We are very excited about the new Farm Brewery Law (http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S7727-2011″ http://open.nysenate.gov/legislation/bill/S7727-2011) that will help push hop production and homebrew/craft brewing in NY even farther.  Maybe even be able to sell our beer straight from the beer garden located at the farm, much like a winery!  In the end it has been great to use the land to benefit my hobby and we look forward to our third year and hopefully a full yield out of our Cascade plants.  We most likely will expand and double our plot next year so if anyone has any good suggestions on particular varieties/favorite varieties, let us know.  Initially I wanted to plant really rare and unique varieties, but being rare also means not finding the rhizomes.  Regardless we will plant more of these varieties and perhaps round out the portfolio with the other “hybrid noble” hop varieties.  Lastly, harvest is right around the corner and Chris is hoping to help out this year and take some home for everyone to try.  If anyone has any suggestions or interest in helping out or a visit someday, let us know!  More to follow soon about harvesting, drying, and packaging.

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Visiting Belgium: Cantillon, Hoegaarden and a night in Brussels

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To celebrate turning 30 this year, my family and I decided to take a vacation to see some breweries in Belgium.  Now, traveling with the family to visit breweries can be a bit challenging, since neither of my folks are “beer drinkers”.  They aren’t allergic, but the wonder of beerdom have yet to find its way into my parent’s life, so a week in Belgium might have been a bit much for them to take on.  My girl also came along, but she is well versed in awesomeness and has already taken a liking to Belgian beers.

C’est bon

We flew into Brussels and we were at our first brewery within hours. Cantillon is a brewery that is only about a mile out of the city center and located in a more industrial side of town.  Cantillon is known for using spontaneous fermentation to make their world renown lambic and gueuze beers. The brewery is set up like a museum with and some very old tools set up for display right alongside oak barrels that are aging beer in them.

nice barrels

I’ve done a good amount of reading on this brewery and being able to see this place in person was a real treat, but the tasting was really the best part.

time does not respect that which is done without him

After the tour, everyone gets to taste some unblended lambic, followed by a choice of 1 blended lambic beer.  Luckily being 4 people, we were able to try all the styles.

here are the tastings we tried:

left to right
Faro, Rose Gambrinus, Gueuze, Kriek

unblended lambic: served warm and flat, this is a tough one to drink.  A sharp flavor hits the tongue and lasts for awhile. This was the second time I’ve tried one of these and honestly, I am done with it.

Gueuze (blended lambic): Through combine different years of lambic, this style has more depth and a smoother experience.  Signs of the spontaneous fermentation are still present, but muted compared to the unblended version.  This beer was also carbonated, which helped with the body significantly.

Faro:  This is a lambic back sweetened with brown sugar. This style surprised me with its drinkablity. Very good beer that I plan on replicating in the future

Kriek: A lambic with sour cherries. A style done commonly around the world, and in many ways, I feel done better.  Still the most drinkable beer of the tasting, mom actually got through it

Rose Gambrinus: Lambic and Raspberry.  don’t really remember it.

St. Lambicus: a lambic aged on wine grapes, this was by far the best beer that we tasted. They only sold it by the bottle and it needed to be consumed on premise.  This approach beyond baffles me, but my cranial implosions won’t sway tradition.

The following day we took a 45 min train ride to visit the brewery/museum at Hoegaarden.  This was meant to be an easy day for the rest of the group, since Cantillon was a bit of a nose dive into Belgian beers.  A quick cab from the train station allowed us to see the country side and make it to the brewery/restaurant/museum within 5 minutes.

a great place for the afternoon

The museum was a pretty straight forward walk-through media experience, obviously InBev put a few bucks into it, but nothing outstanding.  I did learn that Hoegaarden is the name of the town that made wits, not just an individual brewery. In the courtyard, there is a lovely restaurant that serves all the varietals of Hoegaarden, including the raspberry infused Rose, which was an instant success with my mother.

Grand Cru, Rose, Julius Cesar, Wit

This visit was meant to be easy and relaxing for everyone involved, and it met expectations.  Hoegarden was a fun day trip that went very smoothly. The beer was good, the museum was thoughtful, and the restaurant  owned pretty hard.

That evening my lady and I went out on our own to discover some of the finer parts of Brussels.  A great dinner conversation slowly evolved into a local walking to one of the best beer bars that he knew of in town.  “Au Bon Vieux Temps” has a great atmosphere, but the walk down the scary alley was kind of tough to pull off.  For the second time in my life, I was able to try a Westvleteren 12, which was ranked the best beer in the world a few years ago.  The night ended with us making some new friends and enjoying Brussels, next up was the Trappists and Bruge

Brewing with Potassium Metabisulphate and Potassium Sorbate

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Perhaps it was during a Basic Brewing Radio episode,  maybe it was a wine making class I took at Brooklyn Homebrew, or simply having a roommate that is a sommelier, but treating beer like wine is an approach that i have been interested in using for the better part of a year.  In wine production, sometimes after fermentation is complete, chemicals like Potassium Metabisulphate (KMS)(K2S2O5) and Potassium Sorbate (C6H7KO2) are used to not only stabilize wine, but also to slow oxidation.  If anyone that you know is allergic to Sulfites, their trouble with wine is caused from this practice.
The purpose of adding KMS is to add self life to wine, since this treatment kills off lots of microorganisms, but it also slows the process of oxidation, which is tremendously important when aging wine for decades.  Potassium Sorbate stops yeast replication, so even after treatment, fermentation can continue, but the yeast do not reproduce and they eventually die.
For my first step into this technique, I brewed a basic wheat beer.  Once fermentation was done, I then treated 2.5 gallons of the batch with both KMS and Potassium Sorbate.  I made a chunky puree of fresh cherry’s from the corner store with about 2 lbs of Cherries and 2 cups of white sugar.  The puree went into both batches of beer.  The treated beer ended up with a Final Gravity of 1.014, while the untreated beer finished off at 1.011.  To treat the 2.5 gallon batch, I used 3/4 teaspoon of KMS and 2.5 teaspoons of Potassium Sorbate

Untreated (left) vs Treated (right)

Tasting of Treated vs Untreated:

Untreated:

appearance: a hazy pink that has a very white head.  There is almost an orange hue to the pink

nose: A very light scent of wheat with undertones of cherry

flavor: very light in flavor, a slight hop bitterness slips into a dry finish of wheat and cherry.

mouth feel: nice and balanced with a light body, the head does leave quickly but the carbonation is medium

overall: very pleasant summer beer.  The balance of the wheat and cherry works really well and the dry finish.  7.5/ 10

treated:

appearance: the head stays around longer than the untreated beer.  Color is identical

nose: Very similar to the untreated beer, but a very very slight chemical scent is at the end of the nose

Flavor:  that’s definitely sweeter than the untreated. The white sugar sweetness removes the dryness from this beer completely.  The wheat character is also faded.  The Cherry perception is increased.

mouthfeel: a rounder body with that chemical taste that is nearly undetectable. Medium bodied and the carbonation seems higher.

overall:  This worked better than I thought it would, the white sugar and the slight chemical flavor really brought out the carbonation and the cherry flavor.  Next time I will use a different sweetener and less chemicals, but this was a worthwhile endeavor.  This opens up very many possibilities!!!!

This process definitely worked, but it needs a lot of tinkering to make beer that is truly outstanding.  Luckily, I learned a whole lot about this process on my recent visit to Sam Adams. The end product I am hoping to make is a fruit beer that actually tastes sweet enough to be considered a dessert beer, but one that tastes very similar to the fruit used.  This could also really help in my cider, which I have yet to be fully satisfied.  Much more to come.

“Coaching” Session at Boston Brewery

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One of the perks of winning last autumn’s Brooklyn Wort was a one on one coaching session with an employee of Boston Brewing. By the way, the next Brooklyn Wort is being held in Manhattan in October and entries start Aug 11 for the preliminary round.  Details are here. (http://www.brooklynwort.com/)

I was offered a bunch of options, like a phone conference with a marketing specialist, but I was really interested in speaking with a brewer that could help me out with some of the more experimental things I’m playing with in my kitchen, I mean brewery. I was hoping that one of the biggest Micros would be willing to let me take up an hour of time to really pick a pro brewers brain.

After months of failure trying to work out a date that I could make it up to Boston to actually get face time with someone, summer finally came to my rescue.  I grabbed two friends who happened to have a weekday off and drove up to Boston.

Rolling up to the “Boston Brewery” I was immediately taken back by how small the scale was.  It turns out that they only use a 10 barrel system up in Boston, be it a nice one, the vast majority of their beer is brewed at two other major breweries in other parts of the country.

that’s it?

The shock of that quickly wore off when I learned that the Boston Brewery is responsible for their cask room releases.  The brewery is all set up for nice tours and cool pictures with plenty of history about Sam Adams and lots of awards that they have won hung above.  I would recommend a visit for someone who hasn’t really toured breweries before, you get to smell hops, check out grains, and walk the floor of the brew house.

big barrels!

Luckily, the majority of my visit was spent with Grant,  a recent addition to Boston Brewing, who is one of the brewers there.  After a few minutes, Grant figured out that I wasn’t there for some fun chat about pitching rate, but that I had a few more in depth questions that I would like to discuss.

Grant dropping knowledge

The talk very quickly turned into a great coaching session with ideas being shared about wild yeast identification and pH adjustment, with a little bit of info about KMS and stabilizing bigger beers.  Having someone with this kind of brewing knowledge really explain some of the science behind my ideas essentially leapfrogged my experiments about 2 years forward.  On the way out, he even hit me up with a couple of online resources that are exactly what I was looking for.  Grant made the four hour drive worth it.

This experience really renewed my affection for Sam Adams.  Sam was one of the first Micros that I ever tasted and many times, it was their brew that was my first exposure to different styles of beer.  Having them treat me with such a high level of respect and openness really boosted this beer back to the top of the pile for me. I know what I’ll be drinking next time I’m at a normal bar.  Much more on the information that I learned about in the coming posts, I hope Sam Adams starts a beer school!

Many thanks must be said to both Michelle and Grant.

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