Thursday, August 27, 2015

Ruminations on Brewing American Pale Ale

So, first off, apologies for the dearth of posting over the past several months.  It has not been for a lack of brewing, I assure you, but more for a lack of "interesting" brewing and life getting in the way.  My wife and I recently found out we are having a baby boy so efforts have been focused on that department of late.  Also, I've put together a kegerator and have basically just been brewing some hoppy beers that I like to have on tap -- many of which I have already posted about in the past.  There have been a few brews that I've done that are still conditioning that I'm hoping will be post-worthy, so keep an eye out for those.

Recently my brewing has really centered around creating approachable, easy-drinking, medium-strength, "hop-flavor-foward" beers.  After doing many of these over the past few years and changing my process and ingredients, I think I've finally found a method that results in beers that at least I like to drink.  I don't think that I am the only one who is embracing this trend either, as I'm starting to see more beers straddling the Hoppy APA/Session IPA categories.

Thus, here are some of my musings on various process matters and techniques that I've found to have been successful.

Water Profile
Obviously in a hoppy beer, the hops come roaring onto center stage and steal all of the credit.  Don't get me wrong, I think hop selection and usage are incredibly important, but I'm beginning to think that water chemistry can be argued to be just as important...if not more so.

Full disclosure, I do not hold myself out as an expert in water chemistry.  In fact, I think that my approach to building a water profile for low-medium ABV hoppy beers is in direct opposition to what is commonly preached by homebrewers with more of a chemistry background.

The general advice that I've encountered in my homebrew career has been to accentuate hop character by increasing the PPM of sulfate.  Sulfate ions present in beer serve to increase a drinkers' perception of "dryness" in the beer, thereby increasing the drinkers' perception of hops.  Conversely, the Chloride ion (not to be confused with chlorine or chloramine) is another water salt that many say to keep diminished.  Chloride tends to add a fuller, maltier mouthfeel to the beer, with many arguing that this muddles hop character.

A common metric cited to measure their combined impact is the sulfate/chloride ratio.  A ratio of over 2 will indicate a beer that trends toward hoppy, whereas a ratio of 0.5 will tend to produce a beer that is more on the malty side.  I have several issues with this metric.  First off, beers with a 200pm SO4/100ppm Cl ratio will have a very different character than one with a 20ppm SO4/10ppm Cl ratio, however the metric would be identical.  Also, when people refer to sulfates as producing a "hoppier" beer, it seems to me that they are referring to hop bitterness.  Hops have three different contribution to a beer experience (other than antiseptic properties): bitterness, flavor, and aroma.  In some beers, especially American pale ales, hop bitterness is not necessarily a characteristic that I want to emphasize -- at least not instead of hop flavor.

In my case, I've been increasing the chloride concentration while also adding sulfates but to a concentration far less than commonly recommended.  Generally, I've been utilizing a water profile focusing on a 100ppm Ca, 75ppm SO4, and 150ppm Cl.  To me, this water combination results in a beer that is "dry" when mashed low, but allows the malt backbone to be noticeable.  The characteristic is hard to put a finger on, but I can really only describe the mouthfeel as "fluffy".  Additionally, since the sulfates are lower than traditional IPAs, you get a ton of hop flavor without bitterness (provided you use a lot of hops, see later section).

Another issue with water profile that I feel is commonly overlooked is mash pH.  I know a lot of homebrewers that are advanced enough to be mindful of mash pH simply try to get it into the 5.3 - 5.5 range in order to maximize conversion of starches.  I've observed with most of my beers where crispness is an ideal trait that a mash pH of 5.2 lends a noticeable briskness to the beer that is lacking at higher mash pH.  It's not really a bite of acidity, but just a little bit more sharpness.

For the longest time once I switched to all grain brewing, I used regular, domestic 2-row as 90-100% of my grist in almost all of my "American" style beers.  It wasn't until I brewed a clone of Russian River's Row 2, Hill 56 Simcoe single hop APA that I realized the benefit of using a blend of different base malts.  Instead of just using 2-row, Vinnie replaced half with Pilsner.  The character was so noticeable that I've been using different blends of base malts with Pilsner, 2-Row, Maris Otter, Golden Promise and some local 6-Row all in varying amounts.  The blending of base malts is something I want to explore more in a variety of different styles.

I generally agree with the idea that you don't need crystal malts in APAs and IPAs, except for maybe a small amount in an APA.  My recommendation is that if you are looking to add a touch for color or a tiny bit of sweetness that you keep crystal malts under 5% of the grist.  A lot of recipes call for Cara-pils, but in my opinion, if you are doing everything else right in the brewing process you should have plenty of head stabilizing proteins.  If you find your beers don't have as much head as you would like, think about adding a little bit of flaked wheat or oats.  Both will add body and protein without much sweetness.

Hop Selection
When it comes to selecting hops, I think that the citrus/melon/grapefruit hops really shine in a pale ale.  Hops like Simcoe that bring a lot of pine and resin to the table don't, in my opinion, lend a character that is desirable in a low ABV beer.  Don't get me wrong, I love a really dank, resiny IPA and DIPA, but I do think that resiny flavors mesh well with bitterness.  Since we are trying to make a pale ale that has restrained bitterness, resinous hops should play second fiddle to more fruit-forward hops, if they are even included at all.

While these beers excel at showcasing new hops through a single hop experiment, using a blend of hops with complementary flavors takes them to new heights.  Using blends like Mosaic/Nelson/Hull Melon or Galaxy/Citra/Mosaic/Amarillo lends a taste to pale ales that I can only describe as the juiciest tasting Starburst you've ever eaten.  I've become a big fan of utilizing a hop's flavor wheel to develop new and interesting combinations.

Once you've settled on your hop blend, how you use these hops in the boil is of paramount importance.  With my pale ales, 95-100% of the hops are tossed in at flameout or after.  I'll usually do a small bittering charge with Magnum to ~ 15 IBU, but the rest of the hops are resigned to the end of the boil.  I usually will shoot for a total IBU calculation of 40-50, although since most of the hops are steeped post-boil, these calculations should be taken with a grain of salt.

My flavor hop additions come in two punches.  The first takes place as soon as I turn the flame off.  If I'm using a blend of hops totaling 6oz, half of these will go in at flameout for a 10 minute steep.  During this time, I use a large spoon (or you can use a pump, if so inclined) to get a whirlpool going in the wort.  Once that's swirling, my lid goes on and the timer starts.  After the 10 minutes, I drop my immersion chiller in and ready the remaining hops.  As the wort drops below 180F, these hops go in.  At this stage, the wort isn't hot enough to extract much bitterness from the hops, but it is extremely good at extracting flavor and aroma.  Additionally, since there isn't a strong rolling boil, the volatile oils aren't driven off from the wort.  From this point on I chill as normal and transfer to my carboy for fermentation.

Once fermentation has subsided, I'll add between 4-6 oz of hops as a dry hop.  I generally will use the boil hops in amounts similar to their usage in the boil, but sometimes I will change things up or add a new hop that wasn't present in the boil.  Experiment with this part, there really isn't a wrong answer.

English yeast all day, e'ryday.  There's just something about the way that hop flavor expresses itself in combination with English yeast.  I know most hoppy beers these days, especially on the West Coast, are brewed with American yeasts that are generally high attenuators.  I get it.  Dryness accentuates hop perception.  The point that I'm hopefully making throughout this manifesto is that hops have multiple avenues to express themselves.  When you use a really high attenuating American yeast, you are more likely to accentuate hop bitterness than hop "flavor".

I've been addicted to WY1318 London III for the past several months ever since I had heard that Hill Farmstead uses it in their hoppy beers.  It's also been rumored to be the house hoppy strain of Tired Hands.  I haven't been fortunate enough to have HF beers, but I do live 10 minutes away from Tired Hands and I can tell you that if it isn't the same yeast, it's really fucking close.  Fellow homebrewer Ed, over at his blog, detailed some of the great positives of this yeast with a clone of Tired Hands HopHands.

WY1318 is listed as a low attenuator, but in my experience it's probably in the middle of most strains.  To compensate, I generally mash on the low end -- usually in the 147-148F range.

As when brewing any beer, yeast health is key.  Always do a starter a day or two before your brew day.  I've been using the Homebrew Dad Yeast Calculator along with the method of overbuilding your starter and savings some of the clean, fresh yeast to use in the future.  Marshall over at as detailed this process beautifully here.

Fining & Packaging
When it comes to clarity with American pale ales, my general philosphy is that if the beer is super pale, you can leave it cloudy and it looks delicious (see photo up top).  If you have more of an amber hue to your beer, you have to fine and clear it otherwise it just looks like muddy poo.  Standard boil measures like irish moss or whirlfloc have never been powerful enough in my opinion to results in a truly clear beer.  Also, when the effect of dry hopping post-fermentation take hold, boil fining doesn't matter anyways.

If you do want a crystal clear pale ale, unfortunately you will be needing the ability to cold crash your beer for at least 24-48 hours.  If you do not have any means of temperature control, you'll just have to deal with somewhat cloudy beer.  When you crash your beer and it drops below 50F, take around a 1/3 of a cup of water and microwave it until it hits 150F.  At this point, stir in a tablespoon or so of Knox Gelatin and allow it to dissolve.  If your water temperature is above 150F, the gelatin can "bloom" and actually become Jello.  This won't help us.  Once your gelatin is dissolved, simply add this mixture to your carboy and let it settle out for 24 hours.  By this point, the gelatin should have dropped your beer crystal clear.

When it comes to packaging, I can't stress highly enough how important it is to keg your hoppy beers.  Keeping oxygen away from your pale ales will dramatically improve their flavor and their keeping ability.  I purge my kegs with CO2 before beer hits it.  Then after kegging I clear the headspace out by purging the kegs 3-4 times.  Crank the PSI up to 40 for a 24 hours and then drop to serving pressure and enjoy.

To sum all of this up, here's the condensed version of all that garbage above:

  • Super hoppy American pale ales are fantastic
  • Turn conventional water chemistry for hoppy beers on its head and bump up chloride concentration
  • Aim for a mash pH on the low end ~5.2
  • Use hops that have similar but complementary flavors - no Simcoe/Mosaic combos
  • Add half of your flavor hops at flameout, add the rest after the temperature drops below 180F during chilling
  • Use English yeast and mash low
  • Make a yeast starter and over build it to save some yeast for your next batch
  • Keep yellow beers foggy, crash/gelatin anything with a hay or deeper color
  • KEG!  KEG!  KEG!

Example Recipe
Alright, enough pontificating.  This is one of my favorite recipes that I've been working on.  Most recently, this beer took 1st in American Ales at the 2014 HOPS BOPS and then went on to take BOS.  Additionally, it recently won me People's Choice at the 2015 Extreme Homebrew Challenge in Philadelphia.  Enjoy!

SDBC Seymour Butz
Est OG:  1.057
Est FG:  1.013
ABV:  5.8%
IBU: ~50
SRM: 4

60% Pilsner
38% Domestic 2-Row
2% Caramel 30L

0.40oz Magnum @ FWH (17 IBU)
1.00oz Amarillo @ Steep 10 min (5 IBU)
1.00oz Citra @ Steep 10 min (7 IBU)
1.00oz Mosaic @ Steep 10 min (7 IBU)
1.00oz Amarillo @ Wort Below 180F (2 IBU)
1.00oz Citra @ Wort Below 180F (3 IBU)
1.00oz Mosaic @ Wort Below 180F (4 IBU)
1.00oz Galaxy @ Wort Below 180F (4 IBU)

1.00oz Amarillo @ Dry Hop 4 Days
1.00oz Cita @ Dry Hop 4 Days
1.00oz Galaxy @ Dry Hop 4 Days
1.00oz Mosaic @ Dry Hop 4 Days

2000ml starter of WY1318 London Ale III

Mash @ 147F for 60 minutes


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