Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Tasting Notes: Summer Somewhere (2022) 1D American Wheat Beer

Summer Somewhere has been the summer seasonal beer at my home brewery since 2015. I have described Summer Somewhere as being the same British Golden Ale recipe every year but with completely different ingredients. It really is a horrible way to describe applying the same recipe framework in terms of the same starting gravity, hop bitterness, and hop schedule, but changing the base malt, hops and yeast every year. 

For my Homebrew Con seminar I brewed a variation of the 2020 vintage of Summer Somewhere. One adjustment I made was using a Maris Otter Extra Pale base, but added a small percentage of Caramalt 30 to match the color of the 2020 beer which was made with a darker base malt. 

As this summer approached, I was thinking about how much seasonal beer has changed. Summer in particular was the domain of lighter styles like Blonde Ales and American Wheat Beer. Often these styles were lightly hopped and flavored with fruit or citrus like Samuel Adams Summer Ale, or were hopped a bit more aggressively with a moderate spicy or citrusy hop flavor like Riverwalk Screen Door

The American Wheat Beer style used to be a lot more common than it is now, both in the summer and in general. Here is a rundown of the commercial examples cited by the Beer Judge Certification Program (BJCP):

  • Widmer Hefeweizen: One of the archetypes of the style. This beer used to be made at the old Redhook brewery in Portsmouth, NH. That facility is now the Cisco Brewery, and this beer is nowhere to be found in the northeast.
  • 312 Urban Wheat Ale: Last time I had this beer was at a Goose Island bar at O'Hare Airport in 2017.
  • Boulevard Unfiltered Wheat Beer: This was the beer that made Boulevard. The beer's presence in the local market has faded like Boulevard has.
  • Bell's Oberon: It's huge following in Michigan guarantees this beer isn't going anywhere.
  • Harpoon UFO Hefeweizen: Not listed by the BJCP, but the first example I remember. Local bars used to serve it with a lemon wedge. I don't believe the beer has been discontinued, but I couldn't tell you the last time I saw it. Not being able to find it in awhile was one of the reasons I wanted to brew the style. 
For 2022 I decided for Summer Somewhere to make my own American Wheat Beer. My recipe was pretty straightforward: 66.6% Maris Otter Extra Pale, 33.3% Wheat Malt, homegrown Centennial hops, and American Wheat yeast (likely sourced from Widmer).

When the beer was done and I tasted it for the first time, I really enjoyed it. The more I drank it, the more I started to believe something was missing. It was good, but felt like it might have been missing the mark in some way. Maybe the hop bitterness and flavor was too low. Using homegrown hops exclusively is a bit of a trial and error since you don't know what the alpha acid percentage is.
I decided to see how my beer compares to some commercial examples of the style. I visited my local Total Wine and found exactly two examples of the style. There were a lot more Belgian-style witbiers, or blonde ales with little or no wheat in the grist. When I shared this experience on my Facebook page, a couple commenters said it was because American Wheat Beer is not a style they enjoy. 

For this beer I wanted something easy drinking, with a citrusy hop flavor without feeling like a New England IPA. I targeted 20 IBUs, and had equal hop additions at 60 minutes, 10 minutes, and 15 minutes in the whirlpool. 

The two examples I was able to find were Oberon and Shipyard Summer Ale, a beer I had cloned previously. I poured all three beers in taster glasses and did a side-by-side. I jotted down some quick thoughts on all three beers, taking notes on aroma, appearance, flavor, mouthfeel, and overall impressions. Same criteria as a BJCP scoresheet, but not as detailed as if I was judging in a competition. Since my objective was to compare the beers and not determine the best beer, I didn't score the beers.


Shipyard Summer Ale
Aroma: Bready, toasty malt. Spicy hops
Appearance: Light copper, brilliant clarity. Foamy white head with good retention 
Flavor: Smooth and slightly rich malt flavor. Citrus and spicy hop flavor. Floral esters high and add a nice complexity. 
Mouthfeel: Med body, med-high carb. Finish slightly dry. 
Overall: Nice blend of malt and hops. Like a summery best bitter 

Oberon 
Aroma: Doughy wheat, hint of citrus
Appearance: Hazy gold. Foamy head with good retention 
Flavor: White bread with a hint of maillard sweetness. Med low floral & spicy hop flavor
Mouthfeel: Med body, Med-high carb. Finish fairly clean and crisp, zesty 
Overall: Smooth and citrusy. 

Summer Somewhere 2022
Aroma: Lemongrass, bread dough and crust 
Appearance: Straw, hazy but not opaque. Foamy white head with good retention 
Flavor: Doughy up front and finishes with some light toast. Hop flavor low, some citrus. Bitterness is low, beer malt-forward. 
Mouthfeel: Creamy, medium carb. Neutral finish 
Overall: Clean and easy drinking. A little bland compared to the commercial examples. Could use more hop flavor and bitterness to add some zip. 

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

Time to fill them kegs!

My last successful brew was August of last year. American Stout is a style I had wanted to tackle for awhile. Compared to Irish Stout, American Stout is higher in alcohol and often has an American hop presence. Once a staple of American craft brewing stalwarts like Sierra Nevada, the style is a bit harder to find these days. This was an example of designing a recipe and nailing it on the first try.

My next attempted brew was several months later. I designed a Christmas Ale recipe using Muntons Connoisseurs Nut Brown Ale extract beer kit as my base. The samples I pulled from the fermenter missed the mark. Then before I could keg the beer, a pelicile formed and the beer was infected. 



Earlier this year I had a double brew day: an all grain Hazy IPA and extract Irish Stout. The IPA was super grassy and undrinkable. I blame this on using old hops and dry hopping for too long. I procrastinated kegging the Irish Stout, and that ended up getting infected like my Christmas Ale. Both batches were drain-pours. I also made a yeast starter for a saison I never brewed, and bought a pitch of yeast for the 2022 Summer Somewhere that is still in my fridge. 

As summer began, my kegs were empty. My favorite time of year and I had no beer to drink. One reason why I brewed so little, and was so unmotivated to package what beers I did make was how cluttered my basement had become. Come May I had to make beer for the Muntons booth at Homebrew Con. That meant I had to do some long overdue spring cleaning and make some beer.

For the booth I made the following:

  • Two Muntons Flagship Hazy IPA kits. These hopped extract kits were easy to make on brew day, just dissolve the kits in water.
  • A ten gallon, partial-mash Hazy IPA made with Muntons new Oat Malt Extract. This was a fun brew. I brewed this with a 5-gallon partial boil, added the Oat Extract at the end of the boil to sterilize, and topped off with 5 gallons of water to get 10 gallons.
  • A 10 gallon all grain Hazy IPA. This was actually my first 10 gallon all grain batch I've brewed at home. 
  • A 5 gallon partial mash Passion fruit Sour made with Muntons new Sour Malt Extract
  • A 5 gallon Vienna Lager made with Muntons new Vienna Malt Extract
In all it took me four days to brew all of this beer. The idea for the three different Hazy IPAs was to do a side-by-side at the booth. This beer needed to be in kegs three weeks before the show to have time to keg condition. After I was done brewing all of these beers for work, I gave my cooler mash tun, Brewers Edge Mash & Boil, 15 gallon kettle, and 8 gallon kettle a deep clean. Four days to make 40 gallons of beer for our booth. That wasn't all the beer I made for Homebrew Con either.

Earlier this year I submitted a seminar proposal to the American Homebrewers Association, which was accepted! If you follow my social media you may have seen that I will be giving a seminar on brewing English Ales. The rationale and motivation behind the seminar deserve it's own post, so I won't go into it here. As part of my seminar I could request beer service. Being able to taste recipes from the seminar, that apply my philosophy in brewing English Ales made too much sense not to do. Lets be honest, a seminar with beer is usually better than a seminar without beer.

Hearkening back to my days brewing in an apartment on an electric stove, I brewed four different 3 gallon brew-in-a-bag batches. I was able to brew these over two separate double brew days. Not sparging did impact my mash efficiency, but the time savings was worth it in this case. I will package these in my three gallon kegs and force carbonate them before driving from the Boston area to Pittsburgh. 

That is 52 gallons of beer, in 12 corny kegs, that I made for and will be driving to Pittsburgh in my Hyundai Elantra. Hopefully I have room for my suitcase, CO2 tank, and jockey box. After all that, when I wanted a beer I had to go to the store. What a sorry state of affairs.

At least all this brewing gave me the impetus to clear out my brewing area and get back into a groove with brewing. If I want homebrew to drink for Independence Day and the rest of the summer, now is the time. Time unfortunately is not on my side. My VP wasn't thrilled I needed as much time to make all this beer for our homebrew team based in the UK. I can squeeze in one more brew day before the show. To make the most of that time I came up with a plan. 


If there is one lesson that was reinforced brewing all of those beers for Muntons was how much of a time saver beer kits and extract brewing can be. I bought the Conneseurs Wheat Beer Kit and a can of Extra Light Malt Extract to re-brew a version of one of my favorite batches from a few years ago. I also have an extra can of the Muntons Sour Malt Extract I will combine with the Extra Light for another batch. Finally I will brew the 2022 vintage of my annual Summer Ale, Summer Somewhere.

By getting these in fermenters before the show, they will be ready to keg when I get back. No need to load up on Summer Shandy, Narragansett or Gennessee Cream Ale. 

Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Is beer-flavored-beer making a comeback? Observations from Homebrew Con 2022

Homebrew Con 2022 is in the books. Taking place in Pittsburgh, I made the drive from my Boston-area home to mule beer and other supplies for the show. The first in-person Homebrew Con since the Covid pandemic, the show was smaller than in the past. The Craft Brewers Conference, the main industry trade show for professional brewing, was also smaller in scope. From speaking with other vendors, attendance at large festivals and conferences are down across the board. The Pittsburgh RV show only needed one room at the convention center.

The highlight of the show for me was the chance to present a seminar on brewing English-style Ales. I was also working the show with Muntons. While the topic of brewing traditional English styles didn't exactly coincide with the products we were featuring at our booth, this is a topic brewers have asked me about. In the past I struggled to clearly articulate my approach. The process of sitting down and creating a presentation allowed me create a narrative that hopefully made sense. 

As I put the seminar together, and as I was driving across Pennsylvania I had two lingering thoughts in my head: Would other homebrewers like the seminar and find it informative, and how many people would actually care enough about the topic to show up? Thankfully I received plenty of positive feedback from the talk. As far as interest in the topic, here is a picture taken as I was being introduced:

As a few late arrivals walked in and stood against the wall as all the seats were full. English-styles haven't been setting the world on fire the last several years on the craft beer market. If beer drinkers haven't been buying these styles, would homebrewers want to listen to me talk about how to brew them. The answer at least with this crowd was an emphatic yes.

I brewed four, 3-gallon batches to serve during my seminar.  The recipes and my presentation slides can be viewed on the Homebrew Con app. The American Homebrewers Association (AHA) will publish a recording available to AHA members in coming months.

I thought that would be more than enough beer for everyone to taste as I discussed them. That clearly was not enough beer. I don't think anyone was able to try all four beers. Most were lucky to try two, and some attendees didn't get to try any at all. Several people went to the Muntons booth after the seminar hoping to be able to try the beers there.

The Homebrew Expo opened shortly before my seminar ended. Homebrew for Muntons is ran globally out of the UK. The team over there wanted to promote Muntons new Flagship Range of kits and our expanded Ingredients Range of malt extracts. The UK asked me to make the Hazy IPA kit from the Flagship Range, brew the Hazy IPA as a partial-mash with Muntons new Oat Malt Extract, and brew the Hazy IPA with all grain. At the show the plan was to do a side-by-side and challenge brewers to guess which is which. 

The grist for the all grain was
75% Craft Pale Malt, 25% Oat Malt

Sparging the partial mash Hazy IPA

I made ten gallons of all three versions. Making two of the beer kits was simple enough. For the partial mash, I used the "Palmer Method" of a partial boil and late extract addition. The all grain was actually the first ten gallon all-grain batch I've brewed at home. I dusted off my old 8-gallon kettle from my apartment brewing days as my Hot Liquor Tank. When that wasn't quite large enough, I heated up some extra water and topped off the HLT during the sparge  

To add some variety I also brewed a Passion Fruit Sour ale recipe created by Muntons' NPD Brewing Technologist Nick Piper with Muntons Sour Malt Extract, as well as a Vienna Lager with Muntons Vienna Malt Extract. The lager recipe borrowed heavily from Jamil Zainasheff's recipe from Brewing Classic Styles. The Passion Fruit Sour was a partial mash, while the Vienna was all malt extract.

One can of Sour Malt Extract made a tart beer,
and replaced approx 5lbs of base malt.

The grist of the Vienna Lager...plus
an extra 0.5 lbs of Light DME

Our booth was so busy it made it difficult for us to tally responses to the side-by-side. The response was positive. Even brewers who picked out the beer kit, or selected all three correctly tended to need several sips. I didn't see anyone wretch or dump the kit or partial mash beers. The exercise at least demonstrated that brewers can make quality beer with malt extract or a beer kit.

I was really happy with the Passion Fruit Sour. When I kegged it, the fruit flavor seemed to have fermented out. Once the beer was cold and carbonated the fruit flavor was quite nice, if not quite as intense as a commercial brewery adding fruit post-fermentation. 

The Vienna Lager was excellent. I didn't have time to lager the beer for several weeks, so it wasn't as clear as a commercial example. The flavor was damn close. The response from attendees was quite strong.  One master judge who has brewed the style a lot really liked the malt flavor. His only minor critique was that he wanted a little more hop bitterness. 

We had four taps at the booth. The first day of the show we served the three IPA variants and the sour. The second day was the Hazies and the Vienna Lager. We went through the entire keg of Vienna Lager in one day. Having a classic style on tap scratched an itch for a lot of attendees.

As the show wrapped up I looked at the winners of the National Homebrew Competition. For each category the AHA listed how many entries there were for that category. The most entries by category:

  • Pilsner - 146 entries
  • Strong Belgian Ale - 124 entries
  • American IPA  - 117 entries
  • Fruit Beer - 113 entries
  • Pale Malty European Beer - 110 entries
  • Amber European Beer - 110 entries
  • New England IPA - 110 entries
  • Dark European Lager - 108 entries
  • Pale European Beer - 102 entries
New England IPA in a three-way tie for fifth. Regular, old fashioned clear IPA was in third. The lager categories were some of the most competitive in the competition. 

Most craft brewers I talk to started as homebrewers somewhere along the way. NHC was inundated with lagers, my seminar on English ales was standing-room only, people left the seminar looking for more of the English ales I made for the seminar, and the most popular beer at our stand was a Vienna Lager. Homebrewing has been considered a bellwether for commercial brewing.  Is beer-flavored-beer making a comeback? If homebrewing is a leading indicator on where craft beer is going, the answer is yes.

People in beer have been predicting that lagers or classic styles will be making a comeback for years. A lot of it might be wish-casting as craft brewers have continued to pump out New Englannd IPA. I'm not ready to say with certainty that beer-flavored-beer will make a comeback. I am leaving Pittsburgh with a little bit of hope for at least a modest resurgence. 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Revisiting seasonal beer

One of my favorite posts was my definitive guide to seasonal beer. Going by that schedule, I would be stocking up on spring seasonals if there was an actual spring training this year. It is hard to believe that I wrote that post eight years ago. At that time seasonal beers were a big deal and seasonal creep really annoyed me.  Seasonal beers were coming out so early that they were gone while being still "in season". I remember one year when I couldn't find Celebration in early December.

Many of the seasonal beers I used to look for were distributed by regional and national breweries. Yard Sale by Uinta was a sessionable dark lager released in the winter, a perfect antidote to full-bodied and boozy winter seasonals. Uinta is no longer distributed in Massachusetts. Even brewers like Sierra Nevada struggled to maintain traction with their seasonal lineup. I couldn't find Summerfest the last couple of summers. This year the beer will be retired and replaced with an IPA. As more local options emerged in the late 2010s, it became harder and harder for out-of-state brewers to keep shelf space at retail, and consciousness among consumers. 


In 2022 the notion of a brewery having a set lineup of four seasonal beers is as quaint. Sure, Sam Adams is still doing it, but that feels more like inertia than anything else. Breweries will release certain beers or styles seasonally, but you don't see as much of a set seasonal lineup. 

The main reason for the decline in seasonal beer is that instead of looking for a familiar seasonal with the change of ever season, drinkers want to try new beers and visit new breweries all of the time. The risk for brands is alienating people who love the old brands, and new beers not finding an audience. Samuel Adams has tried to keep a few of their venerable brands fresh by changing recipes for Summer Ale and Winter Lager.

As much as drinkers were trained to drink seasonally in the 1990s and 2000s, too many seasonal beers were similar. How many American Wheat ales with or without citrus do people want to drink? Fall was a deluge of cloying oktoberfests with too much caramel malt, and then it was pumpkin ales loaded with cinnamon. Winter was the domain of boozy stouts and overly-spiced winter warmers. Spring never quite had the same homogeneity, but people generally drink less from January to March anyway. 

This sameness over most of the beer year was probably always going to dampen enthusiasm for seasonal beer. Ironically, you could argue that the sameness of seasonal beer has been replaced by the sameness of New England IPA.