Snapshot – Techniques
INNOVATION in the BREWHOUSE
Beers are evolving, propelled by creative brewers who envision new possibilities hidden in yesterday’s beers or from today’s changing raw ingredients, and who are devising techniques to showcase them effectively.
For example, contemporary IPAs have increasingly relied on dry hopping, a technique where additional non-boiled aroma hops are infused into cold beer that’s nearly finished. To accomplish this seemingly simple task on a large scale, growing breweries with huge tanks of fermenting beer had to turn to engineering. Enter Sierra Nevada Brewing Co.’s patented “Torpedo,” which circulates beer through whole hops in external vessels, imparting fresh, pungent aromas before returning it to the fermentor. Today, many breweries use similar aroma techniques, resulting in an entirely different IPA from just seven years ago.
Meanwhile, heightening hop flavors has been getting attention, too. In recent years, brewers have been circulating clever techniques to boost the taste of hops by adding them just after the end of the boil and into the initial cooling process. A whirlpool is a modern tool originally created to remove hops and solids after the boil. Over the years, brewers have been adding more and more hops directly into the whirlpool itself to coax even more citrusy, tropical and piney hop oils out without accompanying bitterness or vegetative character. This year’s most flavorful IPAs, further bucking tradition with their unfiltered hazy look, show off mastery of these steeping strategies. In the Bay Area, Cellarmaker Brewing Co. and Fieldwork Brewing Co. in particular are well known for employing these techniques, showing off the full hop flavor spectrum by producing seemingly endless IPA variations.
Innovation with the ingredients themselves has gone hand-in-hand with innovations in ingredient handling. Hop growers continue to perfect new hybrid varietals with astonishing flavors and aromas for innovative brewers to exploit. Fine essential hop oils are distilled for brewers who want to work with them, a famous example being Sierra Nevada’s Hop Hunter release just a couple of years ago.
Darker roasted grains are now available de-husked—without their traditional astringency—when desired. New craft maltsters, including soon-to-be-launched Admiral Malting, the first maltster in California in over 30 years, are reaching back for rustic interpretations of the whole grain at the heart of beer. Beer yeast labs—from well-established White Labs out of San Diego to Bay Area startup GigaYeast—are cultivating varieties that enhance hop flavors and learning from the unorthodox way the brewers are working with legacy yeast strains.
THE EXPERIMENTAL TASTER
Everybody’s waiting to see what SF Beer Week will showcase this year, as breweries, restaurants and bars come up with creative options to entice the beer cognoscenti to their featured events. Learning the language of beer can expand your understanding of how beers are made and entertain your senses.
When talent meets those intense little green cones, the results can be astonishing. While brewers describe their beer any way they please, learning to speak “hops” may help clue you in to beers you want to try. All of these terms are applied to contemporary India Pale Ales.
- Single hop: Blending hop varieties or using different hops at different stages is typical, but single hop brews can help you understand what particular hop varieties bring to the game.
Tip: Zero in further by trying a “SMaSH” beer—“single hop and single malt” brew where a single (and usually subtle) malt is used as a canvas to showcase a particular hop. Keep an eye out for Black Sands Brewery’s SMaSH Fest during SF Beer Week.
- Fruit or Fruited: IPAs made by actually adding citrus and other fruits, usually matched with fruity hops. This relatively new trend in IPAs was kicked off by brewer Alex Tweet when he was with Ballast Point Brewing Co., (he is now at Fieldwork in Berkeley), when he developed a method for adding real grapefruit to a beer style sometimes described as smelling like grapefruit.
- Fruity or Tropical: IPAs made by adding hops with “tropical,” “stone fruit” and citrus-like flavors. One of the hottest IPA trends right now and worth seeking out. Often the name of an IPA you see on tap will tip you off to the tropical hop character.
- Black, Brown or Red: IPAs brewed with more colorful toasted grains for additional flavors behind the hops. The use of darker malts lend caramel or even roasty notes, adding a another dimension.
- White: Not related to grain use, but to giving a Belgian wheat (or “wit”) ale an IPA-like hop treatment.
- Hazy: Not quite clear, due to hop oils and particles in the beer that contribute additional flavor.
- New England Style: These unfiltered “juicy” IPAs feature fruity hops, fruity yeast in suspension, big aroma, softer bitterness.
- West Coast Style: Clear or only slightly hazy, aroma and flavors from citrus to pine, usually with a bitter finish.
- English Style: Clear, made with traditional English hop varieties used with more restraint, balanced bitterness.
- Rye: Rye is a grain with a spicy character. Rye IPAs match that quality with complementary hops.
- Pale Ale: Lower in alcohol. Many are shifting to incorporate the flavors and aroma of modern IPAs.
- Session: Much lower in alcohol but with the aroma kick of an IPA. Settle in for a drinking session.
Some descriptions of malted grains in beer relate to the flavor of grain-based food, such as cracker, biscuit or toast. You may see beers described with specific barley ingredient names, something relatively new on the consumer front. Maris Otter is an example of a prized barley that sometimes is proclaimed, almost as a varietal grape would be, when used to lend a distinctive English quality to a beer. (This malt is the hallmark of many of Magnolia Brewing Co.’s beers, true to its English roots.) Oats, malted wheat and rye, and other more exotic grains can come into play. If you enjoy rich malt flavors, beer styles such as Dunkles, Dubbels, Scotch Ales, Stock Ales, Stouts and English-style Barleywines give strong malt impressions.
Tip: Seldom advertised, a family of malt known as crystal or caramel malts gives a distinct type of sweetness to many beers. If you like that flavor, talk with brewers to find out which beers use those grains.
Yeast flavors are most obvious and important in Saisons, Hefeweizens, Farmhouse ales and barrel-aged mixed culture beers. Sour beers usually have been fermented with yeast along with some of the bacteria that give us yogurt, sausages and sourdough. One relatively new comeback player on the scene is Brett or Bretta, short for Brettanomyces. Once a favorable component (along with other yeasts and bacteria) in only a few esoteric beers, and a dreaded “wild” opportunist in most winemaking traditions, Brett is back. Brewers now sometime ferment with a single pure strain of Brett to get a range of flavors from pineapple-like to utterly inadequate but entertaining terms such as leathery, sweaty, barnyard or horse blanket. These beers are not all sour, not all funky and worth trying more than once.
Event Tip: Triple Voodoo Brewery and GigaYeast team up again for a unique yeast profile event — and great opportunity to learn more about how yeast impacts beer flavor: Yeast Profile Demonstration.
Tip: In general, while a modern American Gose or Berliner weisse may be fruited, hopped and spiced differently than its ancestral sour German brews, it will often be lower in alcohol and lighter in flavor than slowly barrel-aged sours that employ Belgium’s Flanders and Lambic fermentation tradition. American wild and sour beers can be anything they wish to be, but if you see “barrel-aged mixed fermentation,” you are probably moving to the more adventurous (and more expensive) side.
MORE INGREDIENT INNOVATION
Salt in a Gose, oysters in a Stout and foraged hebs in a Gruit may harken back centuries, but today’s brewers are ready to brew with just about anything. Obvious flavors deliver knowing smiles—nuts, coffee, honey, vanilla, spices, fruits (including deftly handled chilis). Flavor anarchists, though, can be found riffing with the unusual—mushrooms, cucumbers, beets, seaweed (let’s steer clear of bull testicles, shall we?)—or simply becoming mad scientists, tossing in candies, cereals, peanut butter and jelly, mashed up cookies, bacon…just about anything fermentable or flavor infusing is fair game.
BARREL OF FUN
Beyond ingredients and brewing process, beer may also be laid to rest in containers that impart characteristics all their own. As with wine, wood barrels lend unique flavors to a beer, but unlike wine, beer can be a carrier for even more diverse flavor variations by picking up notes from previously used barrels. The classic example is bourbon barrel-aged beer—beer aged in a barrel that previously housed bourbon. These brews pick up bourbon characteristics: oak, vanilla, toffee, a toasty boozy heat. Stronger beers like Old Ales or Imperial Stouts often get this treatment, but so do sours and many other beer styles.
Nowadays all different types of beer aging is going on—in used wine barrels, gin barrels, brandy barrels, and so on. You’ll also find oddities like SF’s Seven Still Brewery & Distillery, which distills a distinct beer into a whiskey it ages in barrels, then, after bottling the whisky, ages a batch of that same beer in the same whiskey barrel. Think about that.