Mash Tun Comic

This weekend saw the release of Mash Tun, a craft beer journal pulled together by the owner of Maria's Community Bar in Bridgeport.  It's a great magazine and includes several articles on Chicago beer history.  I learned quite a bit about the Chicago Lager Beer Riot and the intertwining stories of labor, booze, and immigrant rights in the 1800s.

I collaborated on a comic with Sarah Morton Comics on the history of Russian Imperial Stout (original writing here).  It's at the end of this post.  I haven't been doing as much history and geography writing lately, but I think the comic turned out really well, and I'll be looking for more opportunities to do things like this in the future.

I highly recommend picking up a copy of Mash Tun.  It's available at Quimby's in Wicker Park.


Tasting Notes: Alberta Clipper Russian Imperial Stout

Big, hearty cuts of meat require a bold beer to stand up to them. That's why I decided that some leg of lamb leftovers would be the perfect time to debut my Alberta Clipper rye imperial stout from last December. The beer is between four and five months old right now. I think I've decided that's not old enough. I'm going to set it aside for several more months before trying a second one.

Appearance: Inky black, with virtually no head. A little bit of carbonation bubbling up on close examination.

Aroma: Dark chocolate, plum, and currant. Very heavy aroma. A hint of pepper from the rye.

Flavor: Big upfront dark fruit and chocolate slowly give way to lingering pepper/spice. Some dark cherries in the background.

Mouthfeel: Very cloying for the first couple of seconds but that very quickly gives way to bitterness in the back of the mouth. Some carbonation present but not enough.

Impression: I'm disappointed. There's no hot alcohol flavors and that's a good thing. But it needs a lot more time to carb. The rye doesn't really shine at this point in time, and the sweet flavors contributed by the crystal malt don't coalesce into anything interesting. I'll have to let this one age a long while.


Lakefront Trail Pale Ale

After about five weeks in our Edgewater apartment, I've decided that an inaugural brew is long overdue. My Moving Day Wit is pretty much all gone, so I wanted to brew something I could bottle quickly. What's better than a simple, hop forward APA? Our new place sits at the trailhead of the Lakefront Path and this will be the perfect refresher after a long run or bike ride.

I've never brewed with Citra in the past, so I decided to design a recipe around this resinous grenade and its notes of grapefruit and lemon. I wanted it smooth for the Gumballhead-loving girlfriend to enjoy, but aggressive enough to take the edge off of a stressful day at work. So I decided to pair Citra with the much milder Athanum, with floral and grapefruit notes. The Athanum aroma was much more subtle than I recalled from my only other experience with it in 2010, but I have high hopes.

I whipped together a starter of some American Ale II the night before brewing, but this morning it didn't look like it had taken off at all. I assumed that my yeast didn't survive the journey from one apartment to another, so I bought some Denny's Favorite 50. Then the starter showed signs of life, so I pitched them together. It's not really advantageous to pitch two yeasts with the same style and attenuation properties - instead of pitching an American and Belgian together for example - but I didn't want to waste yeast. We'll see what happens.

I saved some of my spent grains to make them into energy bars with some soy protein.  We'll see if that happens, but stay tuned.

Malt. Hops. Yeast. Thanks Brew Camp!
The full recipe:
8 lbs Maris Otter
1 lb Vienna
.5 lb Crystal 20
.5 lb Biscuit Malt
.25 oz Citra (FWH)
.5 oz Athanum (60 min)
1 oz Athanum (15 min)
.5 oz Athanum (5 min)
.75 oz Citra (5 min)
1 oz Citra (dry hop)
4 oz gypsum

1.5L starter of American Ale II
Smack pack of Denny's Favorite 50

OG: 1.051
IBU: 40
SRM: 6.7


Tasting Notes: Moving Day Witbier

Sometimes there's nothing better in life than the simple pleasure of a summertime session beer. In the five weeks since I last posted, I've moved in with my girlfriend, painted two rooms, sorted through an excessive number of dishes, had my computer stolen at my OLD apartment, had my grill stolen at my NEW apartment, gotten nearly screwed by my old landlord and saw my workload spiral out of control at the office. So it pains me to admit that my Moving Day Witbier is almost gone. With the computer stolen (and three years of notes and recipes gone forever), I won't be blogging nearly as often for next few months, but I'll be updating on my beers and tastings as they come.

Appearance: Hazy gold, almost opaque, with a thick head that disappears disappointingly quickly.

Aroma: Big whiff of spice, lemon, and tangerine.

Taste: Spicy! Definitely get the coriander and the anise seed as well as pepper-y esters. Little bit of fruit but less than in the aroma. This is delicious.

Mouthfeel: Thick and silky. This is not a full-bodied beer, but it has a milkshake-like quality as it goes down. Absolutely perfect for a wit.

Impression: Think I nailed the style here. Refreshing, full, spicy, fruity. Hazy like a wit should be. A great pick-me-up after an afternoon of moving. Will brew again.


Spiced Traditions: The Church, Gruit, and the Wit

Many beer drinkers consider witbier to be a throwback style, a tribute to the days when beer wasn't narrowly defined by the Reinheitsgebot as the synthesis of malt, hops, yeast, and water.  In the Middle Ages beer was more commonly understood as a local concoction of grains intended for consumption on premises, rather than distribution, and often contained unmalted ingredients like wheat berries available close to home.  But spiced beers were also once endemic to European brewing traditions, largely thanks to the gruit trade and the institution that controlled it: the Catholic Church.

The Church of the Middle Ages didn't just influence Western thought and political systems.  It also helped shape its beer.
So, about gruit.  Back before humans invented brewing chemistry they used herbal concoctions to try and balance the typically cloying nature of beverages fermented with grains.  The delightful mixture included exotic sounding herbs like bog myrtle, sweet gale, yarrow, and wormwood.  Brewers used gruit and not hops to bitter and flavor beer.  Gruit was the predecessor of today's spiced beers.

As the Catholic Church consolidated its economic control over feudal Europe, it viewed the gruit trade as an opportunity to keep nobility in check.  This made sense.  Nobles needed the peasantry to be hydrated, satiated, happy, and productive.  The answer came through beer - and if the Church controlled the purse strings on one of its main ingredients, it held sway over the nobility as well.

The Church designated merchants to tax gruit in several of Europe's largest ports.  Take Bruges, for example.  The Florentine Medicis financed the development of Bruges to facilitate Low Country textiles into Italy, but gruit quickly became the city's biggest business.  Bruges was literally a city run on gruit, with the wealthiest family controlling the city's prime real estate.  As a quid pro quo, the Catholic Church gave him exclusive access to the local cathedral.  The gruit merchant's bedroom actually opened into a private balcony overlooking the altar!

Gruit merchants in Bruges loaded their bounty onto ships in these canals for points all over Northern Europe.
The rise of absolute monarchies, princely states, and Protestantism conspired to eliminate gruit in many brewing hot spots.  The English crown began taxing hops in place of gruit to give the crown more complete control over the brewing industry.  Bavaria famously designated the Reinheitsgebot with similar intentions.  Some other German states didn't adopt the Reinheitsgebot in full until unification, but chose hops over gruit in the throes of the Protestant Reformation.

That left tiny Belgium, which together with the Netherlands came under the control of Charles V, the very Catholic ruler of Spain.  Belgian brewers also began using hops as bittering agents, but without any political pressure against the continued use of spice additions, the tradition of gruit went on in some local styles.  Today's wit reflects the continued adherence to the practice long after German and British brewers abandoned it.

But those spices changed as the Dutch explored the world.  Brewers began to use citrus and spice additions completely foreign to Belgium's oceanic climate.  That story will come in part three.  Might be a while, as a business trip has derailed my blogging plans, but stay tuned!