Warm, Flat, and Delicious: A Primer on Cask Ale

Perhaps you’ve seen it at your local watering hole, at the end of a long line of colorful, gimmicky tap handles. It sits alone, in a corner, often barely visible on the inside corner of the bar: a long curvy brass neck and an old fashioned looking, unadorned wooden handle.

Surely it’s just kitsch, you think. A decorative throwback, reminiscent of the hand-pumped water wells of the frontier days. Then one day an unassuming beer geek wanders in with a notepad, speaks to the barkeep, and you watch him as he wrestles, through sheer brute force, what looks like beer out of that decrepit old device. No, my friends, that’s not decor; it’s called a beer engine, and is home to one of the true gems of the beer world: cask-conditioned ale. Many have seen it, some even know what it is, and yet in America it is a most overlooked and underappreciated piece of beer culture. That’s why I’ve chosen to try my hand at convincing a skeptical public why they would ever want to drink warm, flat beer.

Cask-conditioned ales, based on a loose interpretation of the definition offered by the Campaign for Real Ales (CAMRA) in the UK, has two primary characteristics: it has been naturally conditioned by the action of yeast, and has not been pasteurized or filtered. Let’s compare this to two more familiar data points to see what makes cask-conditioned ale so different.

Typical tap or keg ale is filtered to remove yeast and other sediment, giving it more of a crystal clear appearance and better shelf stability. You see, many of the compounds that are removed by filtration would otherwise decompose and undergo reactions over time that can degrade – or sometimes improve – the flavor of the beer as it ages. Inconsistency is the bane of the commercial brewery, and over time the commercial brewers have had a great deal of influence on consumers’ tastes and preferences, even among craft beer drinkers to a lesser extent.

Shelf stability is further improved by pastuerization, which kills off any microorganisms that might still exist in the beer at the end of fermentation. This keeps infections from wild yeast or bacteria from impacting the flavor stability over time, but it also eliminates any yeast still suspended in the beer that hasn’t flocculated (i.e. went to sleep on the bottom of the fermenter when it ran out of food). This makes bottle or cask-conditioning the beer impossible, and so it is force carbonated by pressurized carbon dioxide. That is, the brewers place the beer in a keg or tank and applies high pressure CO2 until the gas dissolves into the beer, giving it carbonation, then the full and carbonated keg, bottle, or can is sealed tight to keep the carbon dioxide from escaping until the beer is served to the consumer.

Then there’s lagers. These too are mostly pasteurized, filtered, and force carbonated, but only after a secondary fermentation and lagering period. After primary fermentation is complete (or nearly complete) the beer is stored for a long period of time at a low temperature, and the yeast clean up a lot of the mess they’ve left behind during primary fermentation. Things like esters, phenols, and higher alcohols that contribute yeast based complexity to some ales but are unwelcome in most clean-drinking lagers.

So what makes Cask Ale different? First of all, it’s alive. The beer is not pasteurized or filtered in any way, the brewer simply adds fining agents to it that encourage the yeast and other sediment to sink to the bottom of the cask so that it doesn’t end up in your glass. But the yeast is still there, and still actively working in the bottom of the tank, imparting flavors to the beer that lies above it. The beer is, in fact, fermenting while it is being served. This secondary fermentation is different from that undertaken by lagers because it doesn’t take place over a long period or at low temperature. The goal is the production of carbon dioxide which is trapped in the cask and naturally carbonates the beer. Another goal is the continued production of yeast byproducts such as esters, phenols, and higher alcohols – the yeast is not cleaning up after itself like it would during lagering, since there is still enough sugars to continue eating. The yeast actually continues to make a mess of the beer. That mess, however, lends a greater complexity to the beer.

Next is the carbonation. As the beer conditions inside the cask, a cellar master can control the level of carbonation by using corks of varying density in one of the holes on the cask (shown sticking out of the top of the casks pictured above). A denser cork allows less of the carbonation to escape and will result in a more heavily carbonated beer, where as a lighter cork allows more to escape, resulting in flatter beer. But since the beer is served through a beer engine (and your barkeep’s own elbow grease) rather than being forced through the tap lines by high CO2 pressure, and because the beer is naturally carbonated rather than by force carbonation at high pressure, the beer tends to be noticeably flatter than tap beer.

Why on earth drink flat beer? Most of us have, at one time or another, thrown a kegger and had some beer left over the next day. We know that this flat, oxidated beer is inferior to the beer we had the night before. Those of us who were in college at the time probably drank the beer anyway because beer money was too hard to come by in those days. But the reason this beer tasted so bad (aside from oxidation) was that it was designed to be served under heavily carbonated conditions – most of the popular frat house beers in this country are. They are bland, and nearly flavorless, and simply don’t taste good without the crisp bite you get from forced carbonation. You see, higher carbonation distracts the taste buds from tasting the complexity in beer; bubbles coat the tongue, separating the beer from your taste buds, and the carbonation raises the acidity of the beer, creating the only real balance in frat house beers, since many of them use hops extremely sparingly. High carbonation reduces your ability to taste complexities in the beer, which makes it a good thing only if the beer has no complexity to begin. The fizzy yellow lagers of my youth had none; the craft beers I enjoy today do.

There is one tradeoff to this lower carbonation rate, however. Carbon dioxide dissolved in the beer under pressure begins to be released when the beer is served, bubbling up to the top and out of the beer completely. In the process it drives with it a multitude of aroma compounds, for example the volatile compounds found in hop oils. This means that without a high carbonation rate, there is no rush of gas escaping when the beer is served, and the nose will be far less potent. On the other hand, this also means that the aromatics aren’t escaping into the atmosphere; they stay in your glass for the most part until they find their way to your belly. This is why, in my opinion, the best cask ales are IPAs and other heavily hopped beers. Not only do they have enough potency in the nose to still shine when served with low carbonation, but cask-conditioning and proper serving really helps the delicate and volatile hop compounds come into their own. In this Punk’s opinion, there is no greater pleasure in the beer world than a properly poured pint of cask-conditioned IPA (until recently my beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap, had a Dogfish Head 60 Minute that would nearly bring me to tears every time I had it…I miss it terribly).

Then there’s the temperature. The proper serving temperature of cask ale (often referred to as cellar temperature because traditionally the casks were kept in cool cellars below ground, before the age of refrigeration) is 54-57 F. Refrigerator temperature, where most beers are served, is typically around of 40 F, and room temperature is about 70 F. This means that these beers are meant to be served fairly warm – certainly cool rather than chilled – another forbidden act for the average fizzy yellow beer drinker. (Author’s note: I have been known to drink good quality lagers, especially darker ones such as Bocks and Dunkels, at cellar temp all the same, because I feel they deserve it; it really gives their malty complexity a chance to shine. In fact I’ve been known to drink good quality ales at nearly room temperature. It’s not for everyone, but hopefully after reading this you might understand why I would do such a thing.)

Again, the reason this higher temperature works is the differences between craft ales and fizzy yellow lagers. Cold has a tendency to numb the sense of taste so that it obscures some of the complexities of a good beer. Again, if a beer has no complexity, this works in its favor. Think about that the next time a beer commercial touts its product as “frost brewed” or accentuates the cold refreshing aspects of it, or tries to associate itself with snow covered mountains and brisk mountain streams. What exactly do they have to hide?

Furthermore, warmth excites the volatile compounds we spoke of earlier, so that the drinker of a properly served cask beer gets a slightly more aggressive aroma from the beer, whereas chilled beer tends to reign in the release of volatile compounds.

There’s one more thing conspicuously missing from a cask-conditioned beer that is off-putting for some drinkers: a nice frothy head. There is great debate in the world of cask ales about the use of special taps and other methods to coax some frothiness out of cask ale, and we’ll get into that in another article. The simple fact though, is that cask beers in general will not achieve the kind of head that is expected on a tap beer.

Head forms in tap beer when the carbon dioxide comes out of solution and bubbles to the top of the glass. The bubbles surrounding the escaping gas are made of various proteins and other compounds that are pulled out of solution along with the CO2. Think of this as a less invasive form of filtration; whenever you pull these compounds out of the beer and into the head, you disturb the balance of the beer and potentially rob it of some complexity. Again, fine if the beer has no complexity, but a nice cask ale can really show its chops when served without a head.

The reason tap beer has such a vigorous and lingering head is that it is continually replenished for a while after the beer is poured, as more and more CO2 comes out of solution and drags precious hop oils with it. The only way to accomplish a head like this on a beer that is not force carbonated is to agitate it as it goes through the line or the spout between the cask and the glass, or to hold the glass below the tap and let the beer be agitated as it falls into it (not unlike the way frothy “pulled tea” is served in east Asian cultures). But since there’s not enough carbon dioxide dissolved in a cask ale to continue to feed the head, this head will die down shortly, and will have robbed the beer of some of the more delicate and volatile flavor compounds. Depending on how the recipe was formulated, this might be OK (hence the debate I alluded to) but if the recipe is meant to be served without a frothy pseudo-head, why sacrifice flavor for the sake of eye candy? Does anyone out there really like the taste of a beer’s head? Judge a beer by the taste, not according to what beer commercials condition us to think it should look like.

Now I’m not saying that cask-conditioned ales are plug-and-play for the average beer consumer. They’re a lot like certain Belgian beers, it’s something a little odd and funky you might have to work your way up to over time. Even now, I often find it takes a few moments for me to adjust my expectations and my palate to really get the best out of a cask ale, especially if I’ve been drinking tap beers beforehand. But if you’ve been on a brewery tour and had a chance to try “green beer” that isn’t done conditioning, or if you love hoppy beers, cask ales are definitely worth a look. Just know that the quality varies widely based on the serving conditions maintained by the barkeep, so try asking for a sample before you order a full pint, especially until you get comfortable with cask ale’s unique characteristics and the reputation of the purveyors you frequent. Furthermore, try asking a beer guy like me for a recommendation where to find a good one (in good old Beantown, I’m a huge fan of the Sunset as I said, but stay away from John Harvard’s Brewhouse! they serve it way too cold). In fact, take a beer guy with you so they can confirm or deny the quality and authenticity of the particular specimen in realtime.

But in the unlikely event you can’t find a beer guy near you, just know that these gems are worth looking for, even with their variable quality, and don’t let your preconceived notions about warm, flat beer stop you from enjoying one of life’s greatest pleasures.

This was just an overview; we’ll return to the topic of cask-conditioned ales in the weeks and months to come, since there’s a lot of ground to cover here about the different ways they are kept and served, the history and culture behind them, and the modern efforts to save them. Stay tuned.


Fear of the Dark

We all know one. There’s one in every group. The “I don’t like dark beer” person. This has always been a pet peeve of mine, and it’s time I addressed it.

I have a theory that when the average beer drinker says they don’t like dark beer, what they really mean is that they don’t like Guinness. Let me be frank, I love Guinness with a long-standing passion. I like the slightly acrid, burnt coffee bitterness, and the velvety, so-good-you-have-to-chew mouthfeel. It’s far and away my favorite mass produced, near universally available beer. And when I say near-universally, I’m not blowing smoke; resident Punk globetrotter Mike can testify to the fact that Guinness is enjoyed ubiquitously everywhere around the world. But despite this, Guinness is not for everyone.

Consider toast for a moment. If you start out with bland, puffy white bread (say something with balloons on the label) and put it in the toaster for a little while, the sugars brown, and the flavor and texture become delightfully complex, at least comparatively speaking. I would venture to guess most people would say that humble white bread tastes better when toasted.

Now take that toast, put it back in the toaster, and turn the knob until it breaks off. When you come back, you will find a charred brick, whose delightful complexity has turned bitter and, for most people, unpleasant. You burned the toast.

What does this have to do with beer? The reactions taking place in the toaster are very similar to the reactions that take place in malt as it is kilned and/or roasted. All beer is made of malted grains, that is grains (like barley) that have been steeped in water, allowed to germinate, then kilned (or baked) to stop the process before the grain (which is really a seed) sprouts a new plant. This is true of light and dark beers alike; the difference between the two comes from what happens next.

Some malts are kilned, or heated, longer or hotter than others. Heating sugars causes a complex set of chemical reactions known as the maillard reactions, similar to the ones that brown toast, steaks on a grill, or even dulce de leche for that matter. Depending on the environment in which these reactions take place, the resulting character of the malt could be described as anything from bready or biscuity all the way to dark fruit (plum or raisin) coffee or even chocolate. However they are carried out, though, the malt is darker, and so is the finished beer.

Darker grains also make a less fermentable wort, because yeast is not equipped to process the complex sugars created by the maillard reactions. This means that a beer making generous use of darker malts will have more complex sugars dissolved in it after fermentation, giving it a more substantial body, greater malt complexity, and more residual sweetness. This residual sweetness also tends to make them less “crisp,” as a crisp finish comes primarily from having a more fully fermented beer that has less residual sweetness to linger on the palate.

Beer is never (to my knowledge) made with all dark malt because the result would not be fermentable enough to be called beer, and would likely be oppressively acrid like the burnt toast I spoke of earlier. Dark beers use a lighter malt as the base (usually more than half of the total malt content) and the darker malts are used in smaller portions to add just an accent to the beer’s flavor.

Now back to Guinness, and toast. Some people like Guinness, some people don’t. Some people like their toast dark; some actually like it completely burnt. There really is no accounting for taste. But it is the very ubiquity of Guinness (it is actually the only dark beer many American consumers are ever exposed to) that turns many people away from dark beer, at least that’s my theory.

Truly, much as I like it, Guinness and other dry stouts are at the harsh end of the dark beer spectrum. It has a bit of a tang to it; in the case of Foreign Extra Stout this comes from the fact that the brewers actually spoil a portion of the batch with bacteria to give it a vinegarlike flavor, then fold those portions back into the batch. Generally speaking Dry Irish Stouts include considerable amounts of unmalted roasted barley, which is roasted quite dark and lend the beer coffee notes and a dry bitterness that is characteristic of the style. Furthermore, according to Ray Daniels in Designing Great Beers, it is one of the most unbalanced styles in the world, with a low original gravity and relatively judicious IBUs, giving it a BU/GU ratio near 1.0. (See our previous post on IBUs for a discussion of balance and how it is measured).

So despite its rich complexity and 250 year old tradition of quality, Guinness is not for everyone. But the reader would do well not to let a bad experience with a single beer chase them away from the rich malty complexity of other dark beers. There are plenty of examples of styles that maintain the complexity of dark malt without sacrificing “drinkability” as one brewer would put it.

So how can we help our friends get over their fears? As always it depends on their particular tastes.

People who drink lighter colored craft beers in the British tradition (like pale ales and IPAs) would do well to dip their toes in with an amber ale. This is a great gateway beer for folks who are OK with full flavored beer and the fruity yeast aspects of other British ales, and it gives you a good helping of the bready, slightly toasted malt character dark beers have to offer without going too far beyond the familiar. If that works, try a brown ale next. They are roasted a bit darker still, bringing out some delightful nutty qualities in the malt. If I haven’t lost you yet, try a Porter. There is a great variety within the style, so it’s hard to really describe exactly what you can expect here. They tend to have all the dark complexity of a dry stout without the harsh bite, owing to a greater portion of pale base malt and more balanced BU/GU ratio (about 0.7-0.9 according to Ray Daniels).

Those whose taste leans to the lager side (which would include fizzy yellow stuff) want to think German. Any one of the darker German lager styles would be a good choice, since German beer is always, above all else, extremely drinkable, clean, and generally crisp. None of which generally comes to mind when the average consumer thinks of dark beer. But try a Munich Dark (Dunkel) or Black Beer (Schwarzbier) and you will change your mind quickly. In fact, schwarz in particular has always reminded me of Guinness with all of the sharp edges filed down. For something a bit more ambitious, try a Bock or Doppelbock; this is the boldest of all the German lagers with tons of delicious malt complexity and a high alcohol content, but they are still amazingly clean and easy drinking. Another safe bet that’s very easy to find in decent liquor stores would be Negra Modelo, a dark lager first brewed in Mexico by Austrian immigrants.

And what about the grape juice drinkers? I always point wine people toward the Belgians…it’s a long shot, as Belgian beers are very complex and might be offputting to casual beer drinkers, but if there’s any chance of getting a wine person to drink beer, this is it. Quads are extremely complex, fruity strong dark ales; that’s a good place to start. There are also many fruit lambics that are dark and would work quite well for wine people, such as Kriek (cherry) or Framboise (raspberry), though the darkness here is likely from the fruit, rather than the malt.

The various styles of dark beer cover alot of ground, and are largely unexplored by the average American beer consumer. This is not acceptable. The next time you hear someone claim to not like dark beer, don’t just roll your eyes. Roll up your sleeves and show them the error of their ways. And if you fear the dark, please seek help. There is a better life waiting for you.


Just One More (I Promise) on Harpoon

I thought I was done with this, but turns out there’s one more in me relating to Harpoon. I promise this is the last one for a long time; this is not a Harpoon fansite after all, it’s a beer blog. That said…

First a recap. In our last article I discussed that there are two very important flavor compounds in yeast: esters (which taste fruity) and phenols (which taste spicy). Different yeast strains produce these in varying amounts, and Harpoon’s leans to the estery side without much phenolic character. I also discussed that brewers have various ways of reigning in the character of the yeast and making it less-estery or less-phenolic, but that they can’t turn esters into phenols, the character is what it is. With this in mind, I examined Harpoon’s lineup and found that they had selected styles that are defined by the BJCP style guidelines to contain either an estery profile or a clean profile (no esters or phenols to speak of). This is what allows them to brew consistently good beer in so many styles with only a single yeast strain.

This is a new way of looking at things for me. As a home brewer I don’t generally start with an ingredient and try to find ways to use it; I start out wanting to brew a specific beer or style of beer and then figure out how best to produce it. Homebrewers have this liberty because we are working in smaller batches and don’t have to worry as much about our supply chain. Our local homebrew shop always has what we need in appropriate quantities regardless of what style of beer we are brewing. But professional brewers make their lives much easier if they find a way to make many styles of beer without using niche ingredients or a dozen different strains of yeast.

I couldn’t help but think it would be fun to play brewmaster and try to brainstorm where they could go next. Just a quick disclaimer, I’m not so bold as to second guess the professionals (yet) and indeed Harpoon may have already brewed or be planning to brew any one of my ideas. Furthermore, they could have already tried and failed because the ideas themselves are no good; sometimes things that sound like they should work just don’t. No, I’m not being vain here, this is just a fun little exercise I decided to share with everyone; trying to climb inside the head of a professional brewer for a moment.

First, there’s the ales of the British and American tradition. As I said in the previous article, beers from these traditions tend to have an estery profile, so any of them would probably be a good choice. Indeed the Harpoon lineup already includes several of these styles for just this reason, but others are missing. However, the natural fit between this category and Harpoon’s estery yeast strain also makes this category less interesting, so I won’t dwell on it long. (Also, I apologize to the Scots and Irish for lumping them into the British category here, but you do share a somewhat similar brewing heritage, so think of it as shorthand not a slight. Slainte!) Styles missing from the current lineup include:

  • Scottish Ales of any kind (one of my favorite categories), for which some fruity esters would be appropriate. If I were to add one to the lineup, however, I’d err on the cleaner side, Scottish Ales are supposed to be about malt, not esters.
  • Stouts, which personally wouldn’t work for me. The roastiness would largely cover the esters, and if the esters showed through I’d view it as an unwelcome intrusion. The possible exception would be a sweet stout, for which some fruitiness might be nice, but I’d trade this one in for the absolute no-brainer:
  • Porter. When I started thinking about it, I can’t for the life of me understand why Harpoon doesn’t already make one. Many good porters have fruity characteristics, and the Harpoon lineup is conspicuously light on dark beers (the wonderful Munich Dark being the main exception). I would even argue that the Porter would be a more natural fit for their yeast than the Munich Dark, which is based on a lager style that doesn’t play well with fruity esters.

Another obvious group to consider would be the hybrid beers. They’ve started making a Kolsch already (Summer Beer), which works quite well. Essentially, hybrid beers are beers that either use a lager yeast (which tend to be cleaner than ale strains) at higher temperatures to encourage esters and other byproducts, or use an ale yeast (which tends to be fruitier than lager strains) at lower temperatures to reign in the byproducts and estery flavor. The result is not quite a lager and not quite an ale (hence the name hybrid beer), but exhibits limited esters in an otherwise clean lager-like palate. I would encourage a push by Harpoon into the hybrids category since their yeast would play well here, and it would diversify their otherwise Brit-Am ale heavy lineup. Possibilities include:

  • California Common (commonly known as Steam Beer, but that’s trademarked by Anchor Brewing Company). They’d want to make sure the beer finishes somewhat dry, and not go crazy on the esters.
  • German Altbiers would also work, but I wonder if it would concern them to be playing in the same space as the widely popular Long Trail Ale. I don’t personally know of any other American breweries that make an Alt (pipe up if you do), but Long Trail is quite popular in Harpoons breadbasket of New England, so the competition might not be welcome.
  • Cream Ale is an interesting option in my book. My first exposure to this style was a restaurant near South Street Seaport in Manhattan that served Genessee’s cream ale for a dollar a can (completely unheard of in Manhattan). I wasn’t quite a connoisseur back then, but it was a mighty fine cheap beer. Brewing this one to style is something Harpoon would have no interest in most likely, however, since the BJCP seems to make DMS (a compound found mainly in cheap beer that tastes and smells like cooked vegetables and is generally frowned upon) and the use of corn adjuncts a requirement. But I see no reason why cream ale can’t be a craft beer. One of the highlights of the Punks’ recent visit to Montreal was McAuslan‘s cream ale, which was nitrogenated for a velvety (you might say “creamy”) mouthfeel and sported a delightful, estery profile. Our notes don’t mention anything about cooked vegetables; it was quite refreshing and delicious. I can definitely see Harpoon making a splash in this style if they bend the style guidelines a bit like McAuslan did. And this is another style rarely touched by craft brewers, McAuslan is the only example that comes to mind, and that’s not distributed widely (if at all) in the US, so this one could definitely be a good move for Harpoon, I feel.

What about the lagers? We’ve already seen that Harpoon can make a reasonably good Munich Dark and a seasonal Octoberfest by toning down the esters of their yeast a bit. They might have a tad more esters in there than they would if they used a lager yeast, but this can be said to provide some additional complexity even if it’s not appropriate to style. Surely they could have similar success in many of the other lager styles, but some might be better choices than others. Let’s take a look at just a sample of what’s out there:

  • Lighter lagers (like Pilsner or Helles) might not be a very good fit. I’m most familiar with the Pilsner style so I’ll work with that, but the category shares alot of similar characteristics and the analysis would likely apply to most of them. Good Pilsners are relatively delicate in character. They are full flavored for sure (Pilner Urquell is not your grandfather’s “true pilsner beer” – unless of course he emigrated from the Czech Republic) but the fullness of the flavor comes as much from good balance and restraint as anything else. Like soft chamber music, the notes may not be loud but they go together. I feel that even the restrained esters seen in some of Harpoon’s other lagers might overwhelm this style’s delicate sensibilities.
  • Dark and amber lagers (like many american craft lagers, vienna lagers, and the german black “schwarz” beer). Harpoon already brews a Munich Dark that works out quite well. This is a bit safer territory than the lighter lagers for such an estery yeast, because (as I’ll be explaining in another post later this week) dark beers tend to exhibit a more complex malt character than lighter ones. This added complexity and boldness would help cover an errant ester or two from the yeast. However, since they already brew a munich dark, a beer in this category might not be differentiated enough to pursue.
  • This leaves us with one of my all time favorites: the Bock. According to BJCP, traditional bocks and double (doppel) bocks are permitted to have some esters and fruitiness in their profile. I’ve tasted some very good bocks with fruit notes. The big problem here is that we are largely talking about different kinds of fruit. I would describe the profile of Harpoon yeast as mostly citrus fruity, with a hint of something else I’m going to call berry-like because it reminds me vaguely of berries, particularly strawberries. Most often bocks are described as similar to darker fruits such as plums, prunes, raisins, or even grapes. This flavor comes not from the yeast, but from the darker malts and from reactions that take place during the boil (again this will be discussed further later this week). I still think it would be an interesting addition to the lineup if the yeast is reigned in somewhat and a generous helping of darker malts and melanoidins is added to give the darker fruit notes. I can picture a brew where the brighter citrus and berry notes balance the rich dark fruity notes and create a fuller, more complex palate. I’m not sure it would work, but I am sure it would be fun to try.

Finally, the Belgians. I have to admit I wasn’t sure where to begin with this one, since I don’t know much about their beer styles. I love Belgian beer with a passion, but it tends to be difficult to lump into categories; so much so that when I try beers side by side from a single Belgian style, I can scarcely recognize that they have anything in common. Furthermore, the Belgians make extensive use of two things that would be problematic in this exercise: brettanomyces and sugar. Brett yeast would be out of the question here since that’s the entire point of this exercise, and the use of simple sugars rather than malt, while not wrong in any way, would be uncharacteristic of the other Harpoon beers, which are brewed entirely with malt. Nevertheless, I did my best to overcome these limitations and here’s what I came up with:

  • According to BJCP, Belgian Pale Ales do tend to exhibit an estery profile. Using BJCP guidelines and Jamil Zainasheff’s Brewing Classic Styles I was able to find that the difference between a Belgian and the more familiar British Pale Ale appears to be 1) the use of noble hops rather than British varieties, which would lend a spicier hop character as opposed to citrusy or pine resiny, and 2) a slightly more phenolic (spicy) yeast character, though it seems that the phenols should be restrained by lower temperature fermentation. Harpoon could concievably pull this one off, since the phenols are more of an accent flavor than the main event here. However, if you remove the phenols you are left with a relatively small change in hop character, and the beer probably wouldn’t be far enough differentiated from Harpoon Ale (which is somewhere between an Amber and a Pale).
  • Then there’s another Punk favorite, the Saison. This is an unusual one for me to like: very citrusy and very fruity, light in body, and heavily carbonated it represents the exact opposite end of the spectrum from my other favorite styles. But for some reason doing everything wrong just seems to turn out right in my book. The flavor profile of a Saison is an excellent match for Harpoon yeast, heavy on citrus and berry. BJCP does mention that light phenols can be present, or that they can be substituted for the use of actual spices – a practice I generally frown on. But in this case I might make an exception. The spritzy, highly carbonated, light bodied nature of Saisons seems to obscure some of the finer points of the flavor profile, and might successfully hide the use of spices in place of yeast characteristics. I think the real challenge here would come from the light body and dry finish; these come from exceptionally high attenuation by the yeast (that is the yeast keep working and eat a far larger portion of the sugars in the wort before shutting down, leaving a lighter body and not much residual sweetness, which gives the beer a dry character to the finish. Generally this is accomplished by the use of specialized yeast strains, different mash techniques, or the use of simple sugars in place of a portion of the malt. I’m not sure what level of attenuation the Harpoon guys can get out of their yeast, but if they are willing to let some sugar into the batch just this once, they could concievably pull it off. They might end up with a fantastic beer that is very different from others in their lineup, and makes great use of the unique estery profile of their yeast that they are so proud of. It might not make it into the main lineup, but would certainly make a great limited edition or specialty offering, similar to Brooklyn Local One from the Brooklyn Brewery.

So after going over the many possibilities, here’s my picks for what I’d most like to see next from Harpoon. A porter would be a natural fit, extending the British portion of their lineup and adding a bit more color to a relatively light lineup. Also a good fit, a cream ale, brewed not to the BJCP guidelines but to craft beer standards instead – more along the lines of McAuslan than Genessee (not to knock Genessee, it along with Yuengling are my personal lawnmower beers of choice, or would be if I had a lawn to mow).

Then there’s the extra credit, swing-for-the-fences brews. A bold, dark Bock style beer with a hint of Harpoon’s signature ester profile to balance the rich fruity malt notes, and a true-to-style Belgian-inspired Saison that really showcases, loud and clear, the citrus and berry notes I pick up in other Harpoon beers. Both of these, if they worked out, might work better as limited edition brews.

It was a fun exercise stepping into the head of a professional brewer and looking at the relationship between beer and yeast backwards for a change. I’m very pleased with the outcome and hope my rambling was either entertaining, educational, or both. Now enough harping on Harpoon for a while, later this week I’ll be discussing why some beer drinkers are afraid of the dark (beers that is) and why I think they shouldn’t be.


Frontiers of Brewing: The Islamic Republic of Pakistan

Just wanted to drop everyone a quick note, I just spotted some interesting footage of CNN touring the only brewery in Pakistan:

According to Wikipedia, Pakistan is the second-most populous Muslim-majority country on earth, and being an Islamic Republic, only non-Muslims are allowed to drink alcohol. This means that the brewery cannot serve about 95% of the country’s population. If a brewery can succeed under these circumstances it surely is a mark of distinction!

Murree Brewery has brewed beer and whiskey since the days of British occupation and not much has changed since then. So if you happen to be passing through the Islamic Republic anytime soon, do as they suggest and “have a Murree with your curry,” and know that you are one of the lucky few to have the opportunity.


Geek Speak Decoded: IBUs, Hops, and Bitterness

This is the first in a series of articles on technical topics that might be of interest to the average craft beer consumer. They will cover topics that are on the minds of brewers when they design brews, but will be fairly non-technical and give only the essentials to help our readers better understand and appreciate the beer they drink, and decode any craft beer marketing material that they might come across.

By now, anyone who’s been to a respectable beer bar and tried to order an IPA has surely heard of IBUs, and might even be aware of a link between this number (a measurement of bitterness) and how much hops the brewer used. But there’s much more to consider here that gets lost on most drinkers.

Indulge me for a second with a geeky analogy from another realm. The situation with IBUs reminds me of a similar one a few years ago in the chip wars between Intel and AMD. Chips used to be marketed by their clockspeed in GHz. This gave the consumer a nice, simple way to compare the performance of two chips or the PCs running them without having to be a computer engineer or understand the underlying architectures. It was a very convenient tool for consumers and was widely exploited by manufacturers.

The problem was that the number by itself was useless; Intel figured out how to increase their chip’s clock speed by doing less work per clock tick (and thereby generating less heat and allowing them to run “quicker”). The result was that an AMD chip had better technology and would outperform an Intel chip with the same GHz number on it. But they were also more expensive and because the numbers were the same, consumers would pick the cheaper Intel chip, never fully understanding the real issues affecting performance. This led to a really ugly situation where AMD started using their own proprietary (and subjective) numbering schemes that didn’t really allow the consumer to casually compare performance at all. Thus the irresponsible use of this number as a marketing tool rendered it utterly useless to consumers. I fear the same thing might be starting to taking place as we speak in the crowded world of IPAs and other highly hopped beers.

IBU stands for International Bittering Unit, and is a measure of how much hop bitterness is present in a beer. The craft beer market in the US caters to a rebellious lot of consumers that are shunning the characteristics of mass-produced fizzy yellow lagers, particularly by actively seeking intensely flavored and highly hopped beers. The IBU has become the latest tool in the craft beer marketer’s kit, letting drinkers see at a glance which IPA is most intense and hoppy, and therefore better… but this number alone can’t tell you that, and it’s important for consumers to understand why.

First, one pivotal key to brewing a good beer is balance. An intensely hopped, bitter IPA is not going to taste right if this bitterness is not balanced by malty sweetness. There’s a simple rule of thumb for calculating how balanced a beer is, using a value known as the BU/GU ratio, which I will cover more completely in a later article. Essentially it is Bittering Units (IBUs) divided by Gravity Units, which is a measure of how much residual sugar is left dissolved in the beer after fermentation, the rest having been converted to alcohol. (Brewers typically use the original gravity, i.e. before fermentation takes place, in the BU/GU calculation, but it is still a decent proxy for the residual sweetness since attenuation-the portion of available sugar fermented-of most yeast strains typcially doesn’t vary enough to throw off the results.)

Even understanding this simple ratio does little to help the consumer, however, as the gravity figures are not touted as frequently as the IBUs. Even if you used alcohol content as a proxy for original gravity (which is feasible but troublesome for the same reason OG doesn’t correspond perfectly to residual sweetness), there are many other factors that can affect the percieved balance of a beer.

The second issue with the IBU rating has to do with the chemical reactions that take place during the boil. Hops contain many chemical compounds that affect the character of beer, but for our purposes we’ll focus on two groups: alpha acids and hop oil compounds. As the hops stew in the boiling wort, two things happen: alpha acids undergo a chemical reaction known as isomerization, which produces the bitterness that hops are known for. The other is that the volatile compounds in hop oils, which provide a rich tapestry of flavor and aroma to the finished beer, are slowly boiled away and lost forever. Therefore, hops that are added near the end of the boil (or even after the boil in a hopback or during conditioning in a process called dry hopping) will impart more flavor and aroma to the brew since the compounds don’t boil off, but will add much less in the way of bitterness (i.e. lower IBUs).

So what does it all mean? Higher IBUs do not indicate a better beer, by any stretch of the imagination. They measure bitterness, but say nothing about balance. Furthermore, bitterness comes from hops, but unscrupulous brewers can goose their IBU numbers and attract more attention by boiling all of the delicate hop oil flavor out of their hops to extract the maximum bitterness. Just be aware of this the next time you belly up to the bar for an IPA and are greeted by the “convenience” of having IBU numbers in front of you. Judge beers by taste, not by numbers.


New Study Suggests ‘Beer-Bellies’ Not Caused By Drinking

A study released this weekend by the UK’s Daily Mail suggests that beer-bellies are actually rooted in genetics and not drinking. Unfortunately, the study also highlighted that people who drink regularly are more likely to put on weight, with men who consume two or more pints of beer daily leading the pack. (Not really sure we needed a team of scientist to figure this one out). Yet, based on a sample of 20,000 people monitored for eight and a half years, the study found no proof that drinking related weight accumulates around the stomach. My advice to anyone looking to avoid these concerns and still drink regularily& responsibly is simple, just hike more than you drink…

What Harpoon Brewery Can Teach Us About Yeast

One thing about Harpoon has confused me ever since I started brewing for myself: their insistence on using a single strain of yeast for all of their main lineup of beers. It is a rather broad lineup, representing major American, British, and German styles, and now with the addition of UFO White, even a token Belgian. Despite their use of Ale Yeast, they field a respectable lineup of Lager styles, including Octoberfest (fall seasonal), Kolsch (summer seasonal), and Munich Dark (my personal favorite from their main lineup, available year round at the brewery but unfortunately rare elsewhere). How is this possible? Why don’t they seem to succumb to the limitations presented by a single strain of yeast?

Asked about it during the tour I attended, the guide simply explained that flavor differences among the styles were a result of ingredients, that is the barley and hops were different, but that the common string running through the beers in their main lineup-marking them like a signature for anyone with a palate refined enough to read it-was the fruity profile of their proprietary yeast strain. This didn’t quite do it for me, so I decided to dig a little deeper.

First, a tiny primer on yeast for the uninformed. Yeast are single-celled organisms that turn sweet wort into beer. They breed, then they feed, then they sleep until someone provides them more food (not a bad life if you ask me). During the feeding process, they turn simple sugars in wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide (which if trapped, as in bottle conditioned or cask beer, will naturally carbonate the beer). They also produce various other compounds that impact the flavor and aromatic character of the finished beer, among them esters (a class of compounds with fruity or citrusy flavor and aroma) and phenolics (a class of compounds with a spicy flavor and aroma).

What the tour guide was saying then, is that Harpoon selected and then patented their particular strain of yeast based primarily on the fact that the founders were particularly pleased with the estery profile it produced. The strain is also an ale yeast, which works quicker and is, by most accounts, less temperamental than lager strains (we’ll get into the difference in a later article). They must have worked very hard to find just the right strain, and I imagine that using a single strain is very convenient, in that it limits the chance of cross contamination within the brewery and makes the work of managing the yeast farm that much simpler. But how do they get away with it?

Lets break this down by style. I’ll be referencing the BJCP style guidelines alot for this; for those unfamiliar, this is the body responsible for certifying people to judge beer competitions (also not a bad life), and they are also the clearing house for style definitions in a way, so that all us beer geeks around the world can use a consistent vocabulary when discussing matters of style.

First the ales in the British and American tradition, as there is some overlap here. Harpoon brews an IPA, a combination Pale Ale/Amber Ale, a Brown Ale, and an Irish Red Ale in the Spring. American and British strains of ale yeast do tend to have somewhat similar, estery profiles, so it’s not surprising that the descriptions for nearly all of these styles make a mention of fruitiness or esters in both aroma and flavor.

The only exception is Irish Red, which is expected to contain no esters according to BJCP. However, there is nothing that says you can’t use an estery yeast to make a beer with a clean, ester-free profile. You can think of yeast profiles somewhat like a stereo with a broken tuning knob. You can turn the volume up and down (by playing with fermentation temperatures or pitching rates…more on this in another article), but there’s not much you can do if it’s tuned to the wrong station. Besides this, it’s possible that you can even make a fine Irish Red with a fruity, estery profile as well, it just wouldn’t fit into the defined style category very well.

When I started to consider the German styles in the lineup things got a little hairier, though. The Summer Beer (Kolsch) is no problem; BJCP describes it as a “Hybrid” beer made with a clean ale yeast. This is geek-speak for a beer made from ale yeast, working at very low temperatures to create a relatively clean profile (having less esters than the yeast would otherwise make) and then lagered to further round out the edges in the profile (lagering roughly corresponds to those conditioning tanks in the brewery, near which the air temperature drops a few dozen degrees!). The description also refers to some fruitiness in flavor and aroma, originating from fermentation; this is our good friend the ester at work, just with less potency than the British and American ales, brought about by a low fermentation temperature.

The German lager styles were a bit more troubling for me; that would include Munich Dark (or “Dunkels”) and the Octoberfest fall seasonal. Lagers ferment at temperatures much too low for ale yeast, resulting in a remarkably clean profile. This is why all the fizzy yellow American stuff is lager beer (though not particularly good examples of it…ask a German). It is possible to produce a lager beer with ale yeast, if you have a particularly clean, versatile yeast that can keep working at low temperatures and produce a fairly clean fermentation. When we taste the Harpoon lineup with this in mind this is pretty much what we find, fairly clean tasting beers that are probably just a tad more estery than some other examples brewed with lager yeasts; but honestly the extra complexity is not unwelcome for folks who live outside style boundaries.

This is good enough for Munich Dark; Dunkels are generally a clean but roasty lager (my intuition being borne out by BJCP, which says there should be no fruity esters or diacetal in Dunkels). But I’ve always known the Octoberfest/Marzen style to have a sort of unique spiciness to it, which I always attributed to the yeast (that is, from our old friends, the phenols). I checked the Wyeast and White Labs sites for their respective Octoberfest strain descriptions, and was surprised to find that neither made any mention of spiciness or phenols, focusing instead on the complex maltiness of the finished beer. A little further digging turned up that in fact, the spicy flavor I’ve found in other ‘fest beers probably came from the German “noble hops” so often used in these styles, rather than from the yeast profile. This example illustrates an important point that we’ll keep coming back to in later articles, that the brewer has many levers at their disposal to effect the flavor and aroma characteristics of the finished beer.

So far so good. All of the beers in the Harpoon lineup either have a fruity profile according to BJCP, or are fairly clean, both of which are achievable with an estery yeast. Winter Warmer (the winter seasonal) is a spiced beer, which can be of any style, so it’s not really covered by BJCP in any detail and we can ignore that one. The bulk of the flavor profile is most likely from the spices used, rather than the yeast. This just leaves the elephant in the room.

The Punks have a well known prejudice against the UFO beers. We are fans of Harpoon, and it has always caused us some inner conflict that some of their most commercially successful offerings are so unpalatable to us. It’s not that they’re bad beers, but something is amiss here as far as we are concerned, and the answer lies in the yeast.

The UFO series is Harpoon’s line of unfiltered wheat beers. It all started with the UFO Hefeweizen, which is a style with German roots. Then they added raspberry to it (we feel too much raspberry…ever crammed raspberries up your nose?) to make Raspberry UFO. Then recently they added UFO White, which is based on the Belgian White Ale (or Witbier) style of unfiltered wheat beer; this is our favorite from the series but still doesn’t quite make the cut for us. We’ll also lump in the new Crystal Wheat (or “Kristallweizen”) that has started showing up in summer mix packs as a limited edition brew, because as far as we can tell this is the filtered version of the original UFO, with some lemon peel for spicing.

The problem here, for us Punks, is that the base styles of these beers (which we love with a passion) use very specialized (and often temperamental) yeast strains. The German Hefeweizens use weizen yeast strains which produce a very complex profile rich in banana-like esters and clove-like phenols. The Belgian yeast used to produce traditional Witbiers, too, is known for a profile dominated by spicy phenols, at least according to the strain descriptions on Wyeast and White Labs sites. But the Harpoon yeast doesn’t have a significant phenol profile to speak of; it was selected specifically for its estery profile. So why would you use it in beer styles known for phenolic character?

What we have here isn’t an example of bad beer, or even beer brewed out of style, but an example of the Americanization of old world styles. One can now speak of an American Hefeweizen style that uses simple American ale yeast but lacks the complex clove and banana flavor of traditional German Hefeweizens like Punk favorites Ayinger, Erdinger, or Schneider; they tend more toward citrusy flavors (we’ve been known to describe UFO as tasting like you are sucking on a lemon…this is an exaggeration, but only slightly when compared to more traditional Hefeweizens). Likewise many American breweries are making what they refer to as White Ale by using typical American Ale yeast and getting the “phenolic” character by simply adding spices like coriander to the beer. The result is somewhat less than satisfying once you’ve had the real thing.

This doesn’t necessarily make UFO, or other Americanized beers for that matter, a bad beer. I wouldn’t dare be so unpatriotic so soon after our most hallowed national holiday. Sometimes we get it very right. I can’t think of a single English IPA that I’ve ever tried, even though the style originated there. It was originally brewed heavy and hoppy to survive the long journey to the military outposts in India, but I feel that it finally got its sea legs right here in the US during the craft beer revolution of the eighties and nineties (by the way, Harpoon makes one of our favorite examples of this style). But occasionally, when the base style is so defined by the yeast that makes it, why accept substitutes? This is why the UFO series will never really receive a passing grade from the Punks. It is a fine beer if you like these Americanized styles, and I encourage you to try it and form your own opinion. Just make sure to reach a bit deeper into the cooler and try it alongside one of the more traditional examples of the style I’ve listed above, otherwise you are doing yourself a great disservice. Harpoon brews a fine American Hefe – citrusy, crisp, and refreshing, it makes a decent alternative to your typical lawnmower beer – but intercontinental it is not.

One feels that even Harpoon brewers themselves are fully aware of the limitations presented by their one-yeast rule. This is no doubt why their specialty beer lineups, including the Leviathin series and Punk fave 100 Barrel series, have ditched the limitations and produced some very fine, unique beers in the process. But I must say, supported by the BJCP guidelines as well as my own palate, that they’ve done an excellent job of selecting styles that are appropriate for their chosen strain, even when those styles don’t match my particular palate.


This Just In: North Korea Launches First Ever TV Beer Ad

No sooner than the punks write about North Korea’s Taedonggang beer, the company launches North Korea’s first-ever beer commercial. In the advert the beer is referred to as the “Pride of Pyongyang” and claims that it will help ease drinker’s stress. It also states “It will be a familiar part of our lives.” I could talk about the commercial all day or you can watch it for yourself…

I have to thank Adam, the same guy I randomly met in Rock and Roll Pub in Seoul, who made me aware of this commercial. He is both a gentleman and a scholar.

“Make Beer Not Missiles…” Sadly, from what I have read the beer costs roughly US$0.60 a bottle in Pyongyang, and only the most elite North Koreans can afford it. But, there does appear to be an underground ‘home-brew’ movement amongst the lesser classes. Ingredients for these home brews include anything the brewer can get his or her hands on. A man named Jong Su Ban said this about the process, “We found corn flower and hops and made something that came out a weird milky color” he went on to say “At least it was fizzy like beer.” Remember much of the great Italian and French cuisine we enjoy today was derived from what was considered ‘peasant’ fare, so who knows where this movement could bring Korean brewing in the future…