Category Archives: Beer Tech

Lagers and Hybrids Gain Traction

Over the past few years, craft brewers around the country have set out to prove that lager is not a four-letter word. In fact, there are plenty of good words to be said about lager.

Lager brewing is a test of a brewer’s skill; lager yeast is very particular, and will manifest strange off flavors if not treated right. Malt quality will become readily apparent, as lager yeast tends to emphasize the malt bill. Yeast count, fermentation temperature, even fermentor shape affect the final product, and should be taken into account when brewing large batches of beer.

In Oregon, there are many breweries that produce a variety of craft lagers on the regular; I don’t mean a “token” lager to appease macro beer drinkers (HUB’s Lager comes to mind– it’s a great lager, but is the only one they produce). There are more styles of lager than Pilsner, woudn’t ya know, and it’s gotten to the point where the idea of a craft lager “revival” is relevant to the beer conversation.

Full Sail has been producing their LTD line of lagers for several years now, and has showcased many lager styles, from Bohemian Pilsner to Vienna Lager (which is typified by Negra Modelo, woudn’t ya know). Heater Allen produces a range of German styles, mostly lagers, and they do it very, very well.

Perhaps the most important asset to locally produced and consumed lagers is hop character– they have it! I spoke with a Bier Stein customer about local vs. imported lagers, and the most defining difference seems to be the presence (and lack, in the import versions) of hop aroma. That long trip across the pond and through our Interstate system gives those imports a little too much time to breathe out their former hoppy glory (just another reason to go to there*), whereas a fresh Heater Allen Pils is piquant with spicy, herbal notes from German hop varieties (these include, but are not limited to: Hallertau Mittelfruh, Tettnang, Spalt, and Czech Saaz). Some of these varieties are grown here in the Northwest (Saaz, Tettnang (which is remarkably similar to, and may in fact be Fuggle))– even better to showcase our lager brewing prowess!
(*This is not to say that imported lagers aren’t good. On the whole, they are delicious– it’s mainly the Pils and Helles that have lost some of their pizzaz, but they’re still uber refreshing!)

A few other local breweries have a penchant for bottom-fermented beers: Falling Sky has practically run the gamut of lager styles, going so far as to produce an Imperial India Pale Lager, truly capitalizing on a Northwest fetish. Occidental Brewing in Portland had a Dortmunder at the Oregon Brewers Festival that seemed to nail the style description with plenty of malt and hop flavor, medium body, and a decidedly smooth but bitter finish.

While we’re on Occidental, let’s talk hybrids. They produce a Kölsch, described on the cans as a “German-style ale.” That’s partially true. It’s definitely German, originating in Cologne (Köln) in the late 19th Century; it’s definitely an ale, as the yeast is top-fermenting. But it’s so much more! “Hybrid” beers– Kölsch, Altbier, and California Common are the most notable– lie somewhere in the middle, and bear the marks of evolution in brewing tradition.

Kölsch and Altbier use ale yeast that produces a “clean” beer in cooler (55-60F) conditions, i.e. very low fruity esters and phenolics, much closer to lager character than typical ale yeast, which doesn’t ferment very well below 62F. The use of ale yeast is relegated to these styles, and Hefeweizen in Germany, and harken to the days before refrigeration and the isolation of lager yeast.

California Common, commonly known as Steam, is brewed in a somewhat opposite fashion. German immigrants brought lager yeast to North America; many used it to start breweries that grew into, for example, Pabst. Others brought it to California during the Gold Rush. Without refrigeration (or temperature-stable caves), they had to take advantage of the cooler coastal weather and hope for the best. The original example of the style is Anchor Steam, brewed by Gottlieb Brekle in the late 1800s. The beer is amber in color, with toasty notes from Munich malt, and distinctive woody-minty flavor and aroma from Northern Brewer, a German hop variety.

In Eugene, nearly every brewery has produced a Kölsch-style beer in the last year. Claim 52’s version is available around town year-round, while Falling Sky, Ninkasi, Oakshire, and Agrarian (Sommer Steiner) have done single batches. Everybody’s is a little different. My own homebrewed version is slightly more bitter than the standard (Reissdorf), and I change up the hops now and then because I can. Kölsch should be soft, with light and crisp maltiness, very low bitterness, and just a bit of hop aroma. The difference between it and Pilsner is a somewhat ethereal quality of fruit that comes from the yeast.

And so the crazed minds of craft brewers continue to defy; to upheave beer drinkers’ notions of what can be, what is good beer; to reclaim lager as “one of us.”

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Firkins, Spiles, Shives…

It may sound like a technical guide to The Jabberwocky: the glossary of terms for cask-conditioned beer is right up there in the silly-sounding-words department. At this point in an intermediate-to-professional beer drinker’s life, you’ve probably had beer from a cask/firkin/beer engine. Chances are, you first thought it was too warm, too malty, flat. Then you picked up on some of the subtleties that come with fresh, live, real ale, nuances that can be found only in cask-conditioned ale. Or, if you still think it’s flat and warm, try it again, and imagine yourself in a pub (oh right, you already are in a pub) on a rainy evening (it is Oregon after all), in the 1890s (got ya there!). At this point I’m thirsty enough to drive to Oakridge for a pint of Brewer’s Union Local 180’s Real Ale. A pint of ESB or Porter is great after coming down from the mountain (or going up…).

Before pressurized CO2, brewers needed a way to carbonate their beer, so they would seal it up in a wooden cask (a firkin = 9 Imperial gallons, or 10.8 U.S. gallons) before it had finished fermenting; the remainder of fermentation would produce enough CO2 to lightly carbonate the beer to make it brighter, more palatable. Carbonation protects beer from oxidation and infection, increases bitterness perception, and generally makes beer more enjoyable to drink.

Back in the 70s, a consumer advocacy group called the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA) wrote the constitution of Real Ale, defining it as

“a natural product brewed using traditional ingredients and left to mature in the cask (container) from which it is served in the pub through a process called secondary fermentation. It is this process which makes real ale unique amongst beers and develops the wonderful tastes and aromas which processed beers can never provide.”

— http://www.camra.org.uk/aboutale

And so we have Real Ale.  But don’t be fooled! Some breweries will fake it by taking finished beer, force carbonating it to a low level, and putting it into a firkin, or simply calling it “cask” beer. It may be effective at recreating some aspects of Real Ale, but is disingenuous to consumers and misses the point of recreating a historical method of making beer.

There are two ways to enjoy Real Ale: it can be hooked up to a “beer engine” and pumped into your pint; or it can be poured by gravity from a spigot that is driven by mallet force into the keystone (tap-hole) of a firkin. Regardless of how it is served, Real Ale is alive and very temporary– as beer is poured, oxygen is allowed in through the shive (a vent on top of the firkin). Oxygen exposure will spoil beer over the course of a couple days, so it needs to be drunk!

One of the many awesome aspects of Real Ale is that you can “dose” the firkin with anything you want– hops, coffee, wood, fruit… it’s impossible to do that in most commercial kegs. On July 18th, the Stein is putting on a smorgasbord of wood-aged beers, and one of those will be a firkin of Falling Sky’s Exposure IPA, dosed with (I think) hickory wood and hops.  Even sooner than that, on Wednesday (7/3), we’ll have a firkin of Firestone Walker’s Walker’s Reserve Porter tapped at 5pm– if you thought it was good out of the bottle, that creamy chocolate sensation will be elevated by the natural conditioning process, warmer temperature (~55F is proper cellar temp.), and lower carbonation.

Get Real!

Update: I had e-mailed Firestone rep Keenan Delehanty for assurance that the firkin was proper Real Ale. He replied back with a paragraph from brewer Matt Brynildson:

Having spent a good deal of time in the UK observing cask ale production, I can assure you that our casks are racked and conditioned in the same manner as those racked by the great cask ale breweries in England.  The only major difference is that our program utilizes no cask finings, therefore the clarity of our beers is sometimes less bright than those you see in the UK.  We feel that we can not use finings effectively unless the publican receives the cask and places it into stillage for an reasonable amount of time (24-48 hours) without moving it prior to serving, allowing the finings and precipitate to stay in the bottom of the cask (that’s a mouth full.)  Most US publicans are moving the cask around just prior to serving which stirs up the cask contents (finings do not taste very good since they are made from fish guts.)  Also, on the subject of priming casks (the addition of sugar or wort to spark a secondary fermentation) this is typically done in breweries that are fermenting in open fermenters and can’t assure that the proper amount of CO2 is present in the beer at the time of racking.  Priming cask beer is not as common as some folks would like to think and it’s all about dialing in CO2.  The CO2 level that finished cask ale should have is 1.2-1.8 volumes CO2/beer and this is what we get in our normal fermentation cycle.  We would only utilize priming sugar if we were unable to deliver the proper CO2 level at the time of racking.  Since we produce our beers in closed cylindrical / conical tanks, we typically are able to get all of the CO2 required for the  finished cask in tank.  We do rack the beer unfiltered with yeast so that any residual activity of the yeast protects the beer while the cask is conditioning.

Hope this helps

Matt

Thanks Matt, great info!