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Session #36: Cask ale – trading bubbles for flavor

The SessionThis is my contribution to Session #36: Cask-conditioned ale that involves actual drinking of beer. Host Tom Cizauskas has the recap (plus plenty himself). I also wrote a little about cask ale in U.S. 15 or so years ago and posted an additional story (from 1997) in The Library.

This seems like a good Valentine’s Day story: Cask ale meets single hop. Together they make beautiful grapefruit and lemon aromas.

It’s a true story. I tasted it.

Marble Brewery in Albuquerque puts a firkin of cask ale on the bar every Friday. Il Vicino Brewery, also in Albuquerque puts a firkin out on Wednesdays. Turtle Mountain in nearby Rio Rancho regularly keeps a beer on cask. Friday I was at Marble because it was the first Friday of the month and time for The Session #36.

The plan Friday had been to serve a porter, but Friday morning it didn’t seem that would be in proper condition (have sufficient carbonation) and a cask of Centennial pale ale was also put on the bar.

The Centennial pale is not a brewery regular. In fact, you often won’t find a pale ale on. From the time the brewery opened less than two years ago Marble IPA has been the flagship. Because the 2009 hop crop has arrived the brewers at Marble made the Centennial-dominated beer to get to know how 2009 differed from 2008 (or 2009 from another field).

The only malt is pale and the beer is bittered with what brewers call CZT (Columbus, Zeus and Tomahawk are basically the same hop). Centennial hops are added 15 minutes before the end of the boil, at knockout and in dry hopping. (Quick aside, doesn’t dry hopping sound like a strange name for something involving liquid?)

“With zero specialty malts we can truly discover what that hop is all about,” said brewmaster Ted Rice. Next they’ll do the same with a Simcoe pale ale. In other words, he wants to know how these hops may best serve Marble IPA, and the occasional Double IPA.

Friday the brewers were trying something different with Amarillo hops in the IPA, adding the Amarillo at different times in two batches in an attempt to get the best (tangerine) out of that hop and avoid the less pleasant (garlic).

Centennial poses no such problems. The pale ale “reinforced what we knew. It’s a flawless hop,” Rice said. “You can use it in the kettle, the whirlpool, dry hop with it, hop the hell out of a pale ale and it retains its drinkability.”

I didn’t think this is the same drinkability Anheuser-Busch InBev touts on billboards. Centennial pale brims with zesty lemon and grapefruit flavors, and of course finishes with a firm bitterness.

This was not a flat out perfectly conditioned cask ale. The foam could have been tighter, the bubbles smaller, the mouthfeel a little fuller, but I suspect Steve Hamburg would have given it high marks. Particularly since a cask pint was as bright as the keg version.

Let’s be honest — plenty of drinkers are going to prefer the keg version, a little cooler, more carbonation, a more straightforward hop experience. And the beer was not designed to be a particularly complex. Not with a single malt, one hop for flavor and aroma, and a yeast that mostly gets out of the way.

However in my opinion time in the firkin and the lack of top pressure made the beer more interesting. The cask version was softer on the palate, fruitier (both malt/yeast flavors and hops). “It allows the hop character to open up, to become more aromatic,” Rice said.

I love happy endings.



In defense of hops: Part I

Dear Abby:
I love hops, but my local brewpub is currently serving an IPA dry hopped with Simcoe and I’m wondering if it is polite to tell the brewer his beer smells a bit too much like a litter box badly in need of cleaning.
Yours truly,
A Hophead

I didn’t mail the letter. Not only because I made the part up about the local brewpub, but because there’s already enough hops bashing going on these days.

In November Lew Bryson wrote:

But there’s just so much more to the whole beer palate than the variety of flavors available from hops, and the enthusiasts, the people who should be reaching out to the future craft beer drinkers, largely aren’t getting it. They’re impassioned about the one flavor/aroma component of beer that is least likely to entrance newcomers: bitterness. Their passion is beautiful, but so narrow. Love beer, not just hops.

And this month, in his predictions for 2006, Stephen Beaumont began:

Although hops, hops and more hops will continue to be the dominant theme in American craft brewing, I suspect that by September or so, a mild case of “repetitive bitterness disorder” will set in, bringing with it a new appreciation for less “extreme” styles of beer, like British-style best bitter, suitably hopped with Challenger, Fuggles and/or Goldings hops, and Bavarian helles and weisse.

hopsThese aren’t some crazy hop-fearing wimps – they’ve been seen in public enjoying an over-the-top hoppy beer. (Beaumont wrote this about Russian River’s Pliny the Younger: “If this is a triple IPA, then I’m all for the further development for the style. Hell, let’s start a I3PA beer fest!”) They are reasonable and well-read commentators standing up for balance in beer.

Their points are well made, particularly when Bryson begins with a defense of the Bryan Pearson’s malt-accented beers at Church Brew Works. But I’m not ready to jump on the less-hops-is-better bandwagon for the simple reason that hop obsession has been one of the cornerstones of the American beer renaissance.

American brewers used hops – starting with Anchor Brewing more than 30 years ago – to make it clear their beers would be something other than imitative of European classics.

But they haven’t received as much credit for innovation as American wineries. Paul Lukacs frequently praises American innovation in The Great Wines of America, for instance writing this about John Alban of Alban Vineyards in California:

“Like so many American winemakers of his generation, he has learned to do more than mimic the practices observed abroad, so as to be able to fashion wines that taste individualistic rather than imitative.”

It’s not only that American brewers are willing to make beers more bitter than ever they’ve explored what happens to flavor and aroma when they use new varieties of hops and different methods in brewing with hops.

They’ve done this at a time when the German Hop Trade Association calculates the average amount of hops used in each hectoliter of beer produced worldwide continues to decrease. Blame the brewers of international lagers for much of that, but it’s happening to more beers than just the ones we label industrial.

For instance, other German brewers rushed “gold” beers to the market after Beck’s Gold proved to be a roaring success. All are sold in trendy clear bottles and are lighter than traditional Munchner Helles. For instance Paulaner Hell Gold is 4.5% abv and the bitterness units (IBU) are measured at 15, while the Paulaner Original Munchner Hell (known as Premium Lager in the U.S) is 4.9% and 20 IBU.

Spaten even lowered the bittering for its Munchner Hell (known as Spaten Premium Lager in the states) from 25 IBU to 20. “People come to Munich expecting a smoother beer,” said Josef Ernst, who was in charge of brewing at Spaten until recently.

Hopping levels are diminishing in beers we don’t even consider hoppy, like the “abbey” styles of Belgium. “The style has gotten smoother and/or sweet,” said Belgian beer enthusiast Carl Kins, who judged at the last two Great American Beer Festivals. “Actually, most breweries try to follow the market leader (Leffe) and make a beer that has less character so as to appeal to a larger market.”

LimetMarc Limet (pictured) of Brouwerij Kerkom, a farmhouse brewery in the countryside south and east of Brussels, is more outspoken. “There used to be 50 beers that made you go, like, ‘Whoa!’ and now you can count them on two hands,” he said. “Everybody brews beer to sell. We have to sell beer, but my problem I have with some other brewers is they are brewing nine to ten beers, and everything is the same. The good things all get thrown overboard, and the bad stays. That is what has happened with hops. I miss that little bitterness that makes it a beer.”

Limet took the opportunity to make a statement when he brewed a special beer for a local cafe, calling it Boecht van den Afgrond. “It means ‘rubbish from the abyss,’ “ Limet said, and the name designed to taunt drinkers who don’t care for hops. He calculates the beer’s IBUs at 50.

“It’s meant to fight the sweet beers,” he said.

This is not to imply Limet is the only continental brewer willing to experiment with hops, or to just plain experiment. For instance, we can hardly wait to taste what Cantillon does with the large package of Amarillo hops Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head Brewery is sending in connection with the trip he and other brewers are making to Belgium.

And let’s give Beaumont credit for following his first prediction with this one:

In British brewing, on the other hand, I expect that more and more brewers will discover how much fun it is to play with American hops like Cascade and Centennial, much to the dismay of CAMRA traditionalists across the land.

Consider this: Centennial hops would have died in infancy were it not for American brewers (and Ralph Olson of Hopunion).

The point is that Americans aren’t just throwing more hops into their beers – OK, some are and the results sometimes suck – and that ultra hoppy beers pave the way for complexly hoppy beers.

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