07/16/09

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.

07/11/09

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.