08/31/09

Punks Welcome Olde Magoun’s in Somerville to the Beer Locator

In case anyone has missed it, our new site now features a tool called the “TP Beer Locator” in the upper navigation bar, which points our users to all of the best beer bars we’ve discovered on our various travels throughout the world. There’s hidden gems here from all over the northeast where we’ve spent most of our time, but also from the southwest and west coast, and even Europe and Southeast Asia, South America, and Australia.

Now that I’m settling into my new digs in Somerville (which also explains the relative dearth of posts lately), Mike and I went out to explore the neighborhood a bit. We’ve been hearing good things about Redbones in nearby Davis Square, but frankly in the recent heat wave, we were looking to stay a bit more local than that (especially after moving my preposterously oversized wooden desk all the way from Brighton). We settled on Olde Magoun’s Saloonright around the corner from my new house, and we were not disappointed, so we’ve decided to add this small, unassuming pub to the TP Beer Locator, and sing it’s praises here for a bit.

The beer selection doesn’t come close to what we’re used to at the Sunset Grill and Tap in Allston, but it’s nothing to sneeze at either. They’ve got twenty one taps, and everything is well thought out. Generic fizzy yellow lagers don’t seem to be available on tap, only in bottles; after all, why waste tap space? The most generic items on tap included Guinness, Stella Artois, Hoegaarden, and Smithwick’s Irish Red.

The taps are a good mix of excellent imports (Radeburger pilsner and Weihenstephaner hefeweizen, for example) and a great list of American micros. What’s more, they don’t fall into the all too common trap of having two dozen IPAs with no dark beers or quality lagers; the selection is quite varied with a little something for nearly every palate.

But the real draw with this place is the food. I dare say their food selections are actually superior to the Sunset, and at marginally lower prices (though the portions are marginally smaller than the Sunset’s offerings, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing if you aren’t feeding a crowd). The nachos-the yardstick by which Mike and I tend to judge these places-were quite respectable, falling just short of the Sunset in my opinion. But considering the rest of the menu changes everything; we also had a crispy, delicious pizza that was fantastic and a truly sublime seared Ahi tuna sandwich. And none of these dishes came to more than ten dollars.

The clientelle also appears quite friendly, and the place lacks the intimidating vibe some people might get from a bar like the Sunset with a beer list that reads like the phone book. And talk about amenities…free wifi, free appetizers on arrangement if you have your fantasy football draft at the bar, the full sports package on TV featuring every football game. They even have a Tuesday night trivia competition sponsored by Harpoon, where the winning team gets four cases and a free brewery tour.

While Olde Magoun’s isn’t likely to captivate us the way the Sunset has for the past year, and we’ll surely strike out for more extensive beer lists from time to time, it makes a more than suitable local replacement, and they’ll be seeing much more of us over the coming months. If you are in the area, they should be seeing more of you as well.

Stay tuned, later this week we’ll have another Geek Speak article on gravity and attenuation, and then next week we should be back on track with new articles in our Belgian brewing series, including one on aged hops, and a few other surprises. Thanks for your patience!

08/25/09

The Beer Excise Tax – a Brief History and Perspective

beer taxEarlier this year H.R.836 was introduced to the House of Representatives, if approved this bill would it would reduce the federal excise tax on beer from US$18/barrel to its pre-1991 levels of US$9/barrel.  In order to better understand the history of beer excise taxes the Punks contacted our Capitol Hill liaison Jeffrey Last, and this is what he had to say on the matter:

Excise taxes on alcoholic beverages are amongst the oldest in the history of the United States.  The first federal tax was established in 1791 as a short lived budget measure to pay off our debts from the Revolutionary war.  This tax has been reinstated several times in our history, not surprisingly either after wars, i.e. the War of 1812, to pay off debts or in the run-up to arms, i.e. the Civil War, as a means to finance them.

It was when the tax was reinstated during the antebellum period, the years just prior to the Civil War, that it was extended from just spirits to all fermented beverages including those we know and love as beer and ale.  Additionally, this tax has prevailed to the present day (minus prohibition); where today it exists at a rate of $18 per 31 gallon barrel for large producers and at $7 per barrel for smaller producers, ones that produce less than 60,000 barrels a year.  This tax is universal, so foreign and domestic brewers are equally impacted by it.

While I am in no position to determine what impact this tax has on the domestic brewing industry, I can give you the numbers on the revenue it creates and leave the judging to you.  In fiscal year 2007 the federal beer excise tax generated $3.8 billion with $3.3 billion coming from domestic brewers, and $500 million from imports.  Keep in mind these are just revenues from the federal tax of $18 per barrel.  Each state has its own excise tax that ranges from the lowest in Wyoming of $0.62 to the highest in Alaska of $33.17(ouch).

While the federal tax isn’t earmarked for anything specific other than a revenue stream, the state taxes are usually levied as a means for paying for certain state programs and initiatives.  For example, Arkansas uses their excise tax to fund education and child care development funds.

There have been many justifications for having an excise tax, both federal and local, on beer.  Some argue that these so-called “sin taxes” are a great tool for curbing habits that are deemed less than healthy, while others see them simply as a tax on a luxury item.  However, there are those who feel the rate adversely punishes lower-income individuals and feel it should be lowered or repealed.  In fact, there have been efforts by Congress recently to halve the federal excise tax on beer.

Regardless of your personal views on the matter, keep this in mind. When you go out to the bar and order a pint of your favorite brew, between 40 and 44 percent of what you pay is the various excise taxes being passed on to the consumer.

Thanks Jeff!

08/18/09

Beer Run with Billy Joel: Sunset Grill and Tap, Allston, MA

BeerIt was a weekday afternoon, and things at the Sunset were slow. The staff was killing time, no doubt talking about beer and pouring a lot of samples for the customers, as they sometimes do when there’s nothing left to do. Then it happened. In from the street walked a living legend…Billy Joel had entered the Sunset.

He took a seat at the bar, surrounded by an entourage, and asked for a beer list. He was ill prepared for what came next, as he was handed not a sheet of paper, but a book, with pages upon pages of beers from the world over, ever major style from every country imaginable. Flipping, flustered, through the many pages, he asked

“You..uh..got a lot of beer here, huh?”

“Yes, that’s kind of our thing…” the bartender replied.

“You got PBR?”

…As luck would have it, they did indeed have PBR; inexplicably since few people likely order it in this environment. So the story goes…

This is my own beloved local, the Sunset Grill and Tap, and I can tell you that the Pianoman’s story is far from unique. After all, who would expect such a wide selection of beer for all price ranges so close to the campus of Boston University, in the decidedly un-glamorous Boston neighborhood of Allston; this isn’t Back Bay or Beacon Hill after all. And yet there it is, like a diamond in the ruff (not to discount another gem, Deep Ellum, just down the street).

No, this is a very common tale; many’s the time that I sat at this bar taking notes on many a fine beer, and witnessed the confusion of a newcomer to this unassuming place when handed the beer list. I must look like I belong, almost like a permanent part of the decor, because questions often follow. Rest assured, I and many others here are more than happy to play tour guide, so if you find yourself here, don’t be afraid to ask questions, not only of the staff, but also the patrons. Who knows, if I had been there, poor Billy might not have gotten stuck with a PBR after all.

Just as you shouldn’t be intimidated by the clientele, don’t be intimidated by the list either. So many choices may be daunting at first, but in time you’ll come to understand that it just makes the place more versatile. If one can’t find a beer they like in the Sunset’s ever-evolving catalog of 112 taps and hundreds more bottles, you aren’t likely to find one anywhere. The beer menu is well organized (this is not a trivial point, because I’ve been to some places out west that could use some work in this area). The options are great in every category, with indications next to most of the beers showing what scores they’ve received in online polling, and stars next to the top choice in a given category. My only knock against the menu itself is that they need a “what’s new” section for regulars such as myself so I needn’t spend a half hour sifting through the menu every time I go there.

The bartenders always seem willing to provide free tastes of anything on tap (this would be all the beers on the back cover of the menu). I’d say as long as you order some beers to go with your samples, I’ve never seen anyone get turned down on a sample. They also offer a range of serving sizes, though I usually go with the default. Do be careful to watch the prices on anything you order though; I’ve been known to accidentally order a $20 bottle of Brooklyn Local One Saison one night when I’d had one too many and wasn’t paying attention. But as a budget conscious Mike was quick to point out in leaner days, they always have a great selection of fantastic taps at $5 or so. If you’re willing to step up just a bit, they’ve got many more for 6 or 7.

As I stated in a previous article, the Sunset is a fantastic place to try a cask ale, they serve up a mean Dogfish Head 60 Minute from time to time, especially. Another very special section of the list is the meads. These are fermented honey, sometimes with malt or spices and herbs added, and taste like something between honey and wine, but somehow better than both. The Sunset has a wide selection of them, which is rare no matter where I’ve been. Mead isn’t really my thing, but certain Punk’s have been known to exclaim “where have you been all my life” with the first taste. Truly something worth trying, even if it doesn’t stick.  It led us to brew our own batch, results yet to be seen…

The place also has its fair share of intimacy, with many nooks and crannies to choose from. In fact, this could be seen as either an advantage or a disadvantage depending on perspective; I’ve often complained that the large wall splitting the place in two limits the sociability of the bar area by taking up standing area around it and limiting movement and the cross-pollination of conversations from one side to the other, but at the same time it creates a much more intimate feel that can be welcome at times, either for dates or for deep discussion among friends.

As for the food, you tend to be safe with anything latin-inspired (gigantic nachos, quesadillas, fajitas, etc) and anything involving the hummus. Overall the food generally doesn’t disappoint, but I would stay away from the barbecue sauce; I’m not a big fan. Also, plan around huge portions for everything. A good strategy is to bring people with you and share whatever you get. If you are still hungry afterward you can always get another plate of something.

I should also point out that there is a pool hall upstairs (Big City) and a Tequilla/Margarita Bar just down the street (Sunset Cantina) that are both owned by the same wonderful people. Mike and I have been to the Cantina, it struck us as a slightly more sociable atmosphere than the Sunset G&T, and with a respectable 38 beers on tap. It offers a nice compromise for the group with a mix of beer drinkers and non-beer drinkers, if the two should ever associate. One word of caution, however: do not order the $50 or $60 margarita…the cost of the drink is the cost of the tequila shot that goes into it; just drink the shot. The bartender there told us they always serve the shot on the side for those and recommend drinking them separately (often being ignored). There is a good reason they do that. We’ve never been to Big City so I can’t say anything about that, but I’d be willing to bet their beer selection is second to none among pool halls in this city.

08/14/09

Finally, a Beer Fit for Breakfast!

Reports are coming out of a very unique beer in the works from the Brooklyn Brewery. My hope is that it finally makes drinking beer before 10 AM a socially acceptable, respectable act. It seems that brewmaster Garret Oliver is looking for ways to get bacon into beer.

The reports are sketchy at best, but it appears the beer is starting out with two parallel threads that will be blended at the end. As Garret puts it  “Either this will be the most amazingly disgusting thing you’ve ever tasted in your life, or I shall rule the earth.” I must agree, but how’s he doing it?

  • A barleywine has been brewed using malt that was smoked in the same room as a batch of Benton’s bacon (Allan Benton is apparently a legend among bacon producers).
  • A brown ale is being infused with the essence of bacon fat by a process known as “fat washing.” This process has already been used to produce bacon flavored rum and bourbon apparently (who knew?). The fat is heated until completely liquid, then mixed into the beer. Then the whole thing is chilled until the fat congeals back to a solid state and rises to the top of the beer, where it’s skimmed off. In the process, the non-fat goodness of the bacon is left behind, dissolved in the beer, while the fat is removed from it. This keeps the beer from developing a greasy mouthfeel (also lipids in beer have a nasty effect on head retention as they interfere with the formation of the protein matrices that form bubbles). The brown ale will then be aged in Bourbon barrels.

In the end, these two forces will combine like antimatter to produce a beer that may very well change the world as we know it. I wait with bated breath, very excited and a little afraid…

08/13/09

Good News Seattle, Fremont Brewery to Celebrate Grand Opening

The Fremont Brewing Company will be celebrating its Grand Opening at the Latona Pub on August 17th.  For those long-time Punk readers you may remember us highlighting this brewery in my Seattle Beer-venture posting.  For those of you who are new or need a refresher, Fremont is a small scale family-owned start-up located in Seattle’s Fremont district. The FBC is dedicated to producing high-quality sustainable beer, and I can personally vouch for the fact that they do.  To help accomplish this onerous feat the brewer sources as many locally produced organic ingredients as possible.  This includes everything from using water from a nearby river in the Cascades to buying hops grown in the Yakima Valley.  The other half of the formula comes from the owners’ passion for making the best beer possible.  I had the pleasure of meeting with the owners during my visit, and I can assure you from what I saw these guys not only mean business, but should be around for a long, long while.  I should also point out that the FBC has a long-term goal of creating a neutral carbon foot-print, and brewing with sustainability in mind.

The opening event kicks off at the Latona Pub 7:00PM sharp when the first keg of Fremont’s Universale Pale Ale will be tapped at the bar.  Fremont’s founder, Matt Lincecum will be on hand to answer your questions regarding the beer and discuss the hardships of starting a small scale environmentally conscious brewery in the midst of a severe economic downturn.  Apparently, Matt is considered a long-time regular at the Latona Pub, which ironically will be celebrating its 22nd birthday at midnight on the same night.  My only regret is that I can’t fly out to Seattle to attend, so I hope all of you in the Seattle area attend, and have one (or many) on my behalf, and please be sure to say hello to Matt for us.  Also, in the future look for Fremont Brewery six packs at a grocery store near you (if of course you are reading this in Washington state).

08/11/09

Guinness Foreign Extra Stout: The World’s Best Extract Brew?

I just spotted an article on CNN’s website about the success story of Guinness in Nigeria. I didn’t expect to find anything amazing here, just another affirmation of Mike’s hypothesis about the amazing international growth opportunities for brewers as the developing world’s growing middle class acquires a taste for beer (and frankly they could do much worse than Guinness in my opinion, I salute Nigeria’s good taste!) It turns out that Nigeria now consumes more Guinness than Ireland, and is second only to the UK in consumption of this most renowned of dry stouts. That’s not to say that Ireland is slouching here; Nigeria is a nation of 150 million people, the UK about 60 million, and Ireland only about 6 million…I’d say they’re pulling their weight, for sure.

What was surprising to me is that in Nigeria, Indonesia, and other markets in which Guinness is brewed under contract this way, Guinness is apparently an extract beer.

Without getting too technical, there are two ways to brew beer, all grain or extract. An all grain brewer steeps malted grains like barley in warm water (a process called “mashing”), which creates a sort of tea by dissolving sugars and other compounds out of the grain and into the water. This “tea” is then called wort. Hops are added, the mixture is boiled for sanitization and to trigger certain chemical reactions, then the result is cooled and the yeast are unleashed, creating beer. All grain brewing is like making soup from scratch, if you will.

Extract brewing on the other hand can be thought of more like making condensed Campbells soup. A manufacturer of malt mashes the grains at the factory, then dehydrates the wort, extracting as much water as possible, which improves the shelf life. Sometimes hops are added, sometimes not, and then the dehydrated mixture is diluted by the brewer and boiled.

Homebrewers usually start out with extract brewing because it is easier, but then switch to all grain when they feel they can handle the challenge and want to increase the quality of their brews. However, this doesn’t mean that all extract beers are bad; I’ve heard of many extract homebrews going on to win awards at major competitions, and have also heard of professional brewpubs that make extract brews exclusively, among them two in Canada (one in Calgary, the other in Nova Scotia) and another in California (Pacific Coast BC in Oakland). I haven’t been to any of the three but have always been secretly skeptical, even though I’m sure that a good brewer can make proper use of any ingredient to make good beer, so long as they are smart about selecting and using it.

As for Guinness Nigeria, they use an unfermented, hopped extract shipped in from Dublin and add it to unspecified local ingredients. My guess is that certain ingredients are easy to get locally, the others are not of the same quality (or quantity) as those available in Dublin, so the extract replaces those that are harder to come by.

The Nigerian brewery was the first outside of Ireland and Great Britain and has seen torrid growth despite a global economic recession and challenging operating environment (including failing infrastructure and unpredictable governance according to CNN). I’d love to get my hands on their product and see what extract Guinness tastes like, but I don’t think it’s distributed in the US, so I’ll have to wait for now.

08/10/09

Ayinger Seasonal (Oktober Fest-Maerzen) Hits the US Mid-August

ayingerThe Punks’ favorite German brewery, Ayinger has a seasonal beer on its way that you’ll want to keep an eye out for. For those of you unfamiliar with Ayinger, they make category killing brews in just about every style of German lager:

  • Celebrator Doppelbock (i.e. double bock)
  • Ur-Weisse Dunkel Weiss (i.e. dark wheat beer)
  • Brau Weiss Hefeweissen (i.e. cloudy wheat beer)
  • Altbairisch Dunkel (i.e. traditional bavarian dark lager)

We’ve tried them all (save the 100th anniversary Jahrhundert), and not a single one fell short of a four out of five, with myself in particular awarding Celebrator and Altbairisch Dunkel a full five due to my penchant for all things dark. Now we get to add the Oktober Fest-Maerzen to the list.

Maerzen beers are so called because they’re brewed in March (Maerz in German) to mark the end of the traditional brewing season, and lagered for many months in underground caves (at least they were in the days before refrigeration) before emerging in late summer and playing a key role in annual Oktoberfest celebrations. Oktoberfest started in Munich in 1810 as a celebration of the wedding of Crown Prince Ludwig to Princess Therese, who gives her name to the fair grounds on which the festival takes place, the Theresienwiese. It has been celebrated with great gusto nearly every year since, starting in late September and continuing for 16 days, ending in early October.

Maerzen beers are different from many other German lagers, in part, because the longer lagering period necessitated that they be brewed to higher gravities (i.e. higher alcohol content) and that more hops be used in the brew, both of which improve shelf life of beer. It is this higher hop rate (German noble hops of course!) that gives the beer that recognizable “fest-spicy” character that many of us think of when we think of festbiers, though American examples probably overemphasize this character. This is another reason I can’t wait to try some German examples now that fest season is upon us again.

Keep an eye out for Ayinger Oktober Fest-Maerzen starting after mid-August.

08/10/09

Meet River Horse Brewing Co. in NYC on Wednesday (8/12)

The Stag’s Head, located in what was formerly known as CB Six, will be hosting the River Horse Brewing Company this Wednesday evening (8/12).  It will not only be a great opportunity to wet your palate with free tastings of River Horse’s Hop Hazard, Double Wit, and ESB selections, but you will also have a chance to speak wit the man who brewed them.  River Horse’s Brew Master is scheduled to be on hand from 6:00PM to 8:00PM.  From what I can tell the Stag’s Head tries to run similar tastings every Wednesday evening, but I am told it is quite rare that one of the brewers is actually in attendance.  On July 22nd the pub featured the Ommegang Brewery; I wish I knew about that one earlier! If you are free and in the area, then I recommend you head over and support the event.  It would be great to see more events like this one in the Big Apple.  This Punk will be there, and hopes to see you there as well.

Click Here for the Stag’s Head’s Regular Beer Menu

Click Here for the Location

About the River Horse Brewing Company (from their website): While we might be new to your area, we have been brewing fine craft ales and lagers along the banks of the Delaware River since April of 1996. You can find our all natural, fresh bottled and draft beer products throughout the Mid-Atlantic region and parts of New England. Distribution includes Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York, New York City, Long Island, Virginia, Connecticut and Massachusetts. We have also been featured by several well-known beer-of-the-month clubs. We use choice, all-natural ingredients and local spring water to produce the best product made in our area. You will notice that all of our products are pure representations of their respective styles, very clean and very well balanced.

08/4/09

Jurassic Pub: Truly Ancient Ale

Mad scientists extracting ancient DNA molecules from fossilized amber, resurrecting long dead beasts and unleashing them on an unsuspecting modern world as part of some half-baked, twisted commercial scheme. Hollywood horsepucky you say? Think again my friend. Truth, you see, can be even stranger than fiction. A certain hybrid, made possible by frightening science, has recently come to my attention: The Tyrannosaurus Rat. No, not the ones living in the sewers under Manhattan; I’m talking about a beer, one unlike any the world has ever seen.

The first batch was brewed in 2006, when Peter Hackett of northern California brewpub Stumptown teamed up with famed mad scientist (and real-life inspiration for the Michael Crichton novel Jurassic Park) Raul Cano of California Polytechnic to brew a hybridized version of his Rat Bastard pale ale that is nothing short of an abomination. What was so different about this simple pale ale? It was brewed with yeast that had lain dormant for 45 million years, buried deep in amber – fossilized tree sap – from an age before man, at the dawn of modern mammals.

Cano had generated a great deal of interest and controversy in the mid nineties by claiming to have cultured microorganisms (thousands in all) from the remnants of amber. Among the many species in his catalog were several strains of yeast closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisiae-he had found ancient ale yeast and brought it back to life! Cano never intended his research to create tasty beverages. In fact he had started his company, Ambergene, with the far loftier goal of synthesizing new antibiotics from the microorganisms, but the company later folded by 1997 when the investors (among them several major pharmaceutical companies) lost patience in the lack of progress. The only marketable idea that seems to have come from the venture was when a homebrewer on Cano’s staff decided to culture up some of the ancient yeast and brew a series of beers from it: T-Rex Lager, Stegosaurus Stout, Jurassic Amber Ale, and Ancient Ale. These beers were served at the wedding of Cano’s daughter, as well as the wrap party for Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World.

So how do you bring bugs back to life after 45 million years? Many microorganisms (including yeast strains) actually go into a state of deep hibernation when they run out of the things necessary to sustain life. If they are preserved from exposure to the elements, say by being trapped in virtually air- and water-proof fossilized amber, they can apparently stay alive and hibernate…for a very long time. This makes it relatively simple (I’m sure!) to reconstitute them; simply sanitize the bejeezus out of the outside surface of the amber (Cano used disinfectant, ultrasound, ethanol, and fire) to prevent modern contaminants from interfering with the sample, then dip it in liquid nitrogen to make it brittle, break it into many small pieces, and then stick it in a solution of microorganism chow and other nutrients and wait. The controversy I spoke of wasn’t so much over the risk of culturing some sort of andromeda strain from the amber or other ethical concerns, but more about the risk of modern contaminants. Most of the bacteria and other microorganisms Cano found were actually closely related to modern species, and considering 95% of modern bacteria has not been identified, let alone studied by scientists, it was hard to say whether Cano’s bugs were coming from inside the amber or outside. Even Cano initially thought the cultures growing in his petri dishes were contaminations that were keeping him from studying the dead bugs he was looking for, but with time this hypothesis changed, he isolated thousands of species, and his work was peer reviewed, replicated on several occasions by other teams, and eventually published in the journal Science.

And what about the beers? Cano’s Fossil Fuels Brewing Company is currently working with two northern California brewers: Hackett at Stumptown Brewery is producing a pale ale, and Joe Kelley at Kelley Brewing makes what can be referred to as a “Belgian” hefeweizen. Neither are available outside of northern California at the moment, but reports from the field indicate that the yeast features clove and other unique phenolics that gives the hefeweizen a bit of a “Belgian” feel. The strain has also been described by hacket as having a “gingery” tang, and several sources make mention of smooth fruity notes, citrusy but not overly sour. Either beer appears to be a must-have if you can get one.

So when will we get it on the east coast? Hard to say. They are expanding draft offerings (with presumably fake amber chunks in the tap handles) throughout California as we speak, and are in talks with contract brewers to ramp up production of bottles for wider distribution, but considering the fledgling brewing company has taken nearly three years to get this far, there’s no telling how long that will take.

So in the meantime, us Punks will have to wait (or pull together funds for that Pacific Coast Highway road trip we’ve always wanted to take) and see where this truly unique yeast will show up next. Reports indicate that Joe Kelley of Kelley Brewing would like to see it in a scottish wee heavy, so you’ll likely find it there before you find it at our local Sunset Grill and Tap, unfortunately.

If you want to listen to me geek out on this truly astonishing yeast strain from the perspective of a knowledgable homebrewer, don’t forget to check out my Technical Addendum.

08/4/09

Jurassic Pub: Technical Addendum

In another post, we’ve told you all about the ancient yeast Raul Cano resurrected from fossilized amber, and the very special pale ale and hefeweizen that were created with it. Now down to business…time for this homebrewer to geek out on what makes this ancient yeast so very unique, and why the entire story is so special to begin with.

It should be noted right from the start that creating beer from ancient yeast was quite a long shot from the very beginning, and Peter Hackett of Stumptown knew this when he signed on to collaborate with Cano on the project. Even though we speak of ale yeast as a species (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), there is a great deal of variation within that species; the very variation that helps gives rise to the plethora of variety present among ales brewed the world over. Many strains of the yeast simply don’t perform well in the hostile environment that is wort, with its alcohol and acidity, not to mention the limited availability of oxygen. Any homebrewer knows that viability (health) of the yeast is very important, even with modern yeast…what effect would 45 million years in amber have on the viability of the strain? The bottom line is, this yeast was very unlikely to create a reasonable beer at all, let alone a critically acclaimed one which Hackett himself said was like nothing he’s ever had before.

To his credit, Hackett decided to press on, and found that this was indeed a very unusual strain. When first pitched, the yeast takes longer than most modern ale yeast to kick in, but when it does – make room. It has a very vigorous, even violent, top-fermenting initial phase that creates a very thick foam at the top of the fermenter. Then it does something I’ve never heard of in an ale yeast. It drops to the bottom of the fermenter, leaving the wort nearly clear. Normally this would be called flocculation and mark the approximate end of fermentation, when the yeast goes dormant to wait for more food (though more accurately a small portion of the yeast would remain in suspension and keep working longer, after other cells had flocculated). But Cano’s yeast doesn’t stop working. It keeps going, fermenting on the bottom of the vessel like a lager yeast would. Eventually, when fermentation slows to the point where the brewer is ready to put an end to it, they “crash” the yeast by cooling it to near freezing temperatures, causing any remaining yeast in suspension to finally give up and flocculate to the bottom so that they can be removed and the beer can be bottled. But here again, Cano’s yeast had other plans; refusing to crash, it simply keeps going – for another month! Apparently a 45 million year nap leads to an epic case of the munchies…

There are two other unique features about the yeast I’d like to mention. One is that it likes to work hot, even for ale yeast. It’s been used in a pale ale that ferments above 70 F, and a wheat beer that ferments at 68 F. My sources suggest that typical temperatures for these two styles would be something around 67 for a pale and as low as 62 for a hefeweizen (though there is some debate that would place it as high as 67, but I’ll go with Jamil Zainasheff on this one). I would speculate that this is because the Eocene epoch from which the yeast hails had a much warmer, tropical climate than the one we currently inhabit, and the yeast was evolved to this climate. My intuition would be that this higher temperature would mean more esters and phenols (fruit and spice) in the finished beer, and tasting notes of others (which were discussed in our other article) seem to bear this out.

Another unique feature is that the strain is apparently unable to digest any but a small range of carbohydrates, far fewer than modern brewer’s yeast. Cano believes this also contributes to the spicy character of the finished beer, though I’m not sure why since I’ve never heard of unfermentable sugar lending a spicy character to beer. On the other hand, unmalted wheat and rye are often described as lending a unique spiciness regardless of the yeast used, so maybe he is on to something. This does remind me of something I read recently about the difference between beer yeast and wine yeast. Apparently wine yeast also works with a smaller range of carbohydrates, and this gives beer made with wine yeast a cloying (overly sweet) finish, unless it is coupled with a beer strain or enzymes are added to the wort to break up the larger carbohydrates into simpler ones. They seem to have gotten around this for the Pale ale by using a lower starting gravity instead – less sugar in the beginning means that even though less is eaten, there is still less residual sugar at the end. A typical pale ale would start at a specific gravity of about 1.058 to 1.065, but the pale ale brewed by Hackett starts at only 1.050, which means that there is roughly a fifth less sugar dissolved in the wort at the start of fermentation.

As for those bottles they intend to roll out to the rest of the country…Cano has patented the yeast strain, and sequenced its genome so that he can enforce the patent. This would prevent unauthorized brewers from conjuring up cultures of the stuff from the dregs of these bottles (apparently Cano doesn’t intend to filter the product). I am ambivalent about this, because while I respect his right to protect his “babies” as he calls them, I’d like to see such a unique strain be as widely available as possible to further the cause of innovation and creativity with its use. However, I suppose this is where homebrewers come in to play; after all, Rogue’s patent on its PacMan yeast hasn’t stopped many a homebrewer from trying their hand with a sample.