We live in a time when information is shared easily between brewers via blogs, podcasts, and forums, and a brewer is only a click away from a knowledgable, friendly community. While books are helpful in learning about brewing, even at a very technical level with a high degree of specificity, I think the active dialogue between practitioners of any craft is irreplaceable in aiding the growth development of one’s skills. Long before forums, homebrewers banded into clubs in order to share ideas and their brews, and these clubs continue to be one of the most valuable resources available to the homebrewer. Several brewers (homebrewers and professional) have recommended to me that I join a club, and so I have: the NYC Homebrewers Guild.
Last night, Cato and I paid a visit to the guild’s meeting at Burp Castle in the East Village. This week’s focus was on mead. They invited Michael Fairbrother from Moonlight Meadery to talk about his move from homebrewing mead in his basement to becoming the largest winery in New Hampshire. He brought along samples of his meads that astonished me in the variety of flavors – along with a masterful traditional mead, he brought red currant, apple pie, and a mead that fermented in Sam Adams Utopias barrels (search Utopias on the web if you’ve never heard of it). Honey flavor was constant throughout, but was always well-balanced by the fruits, cinnamon, vanilla, oak, and other flavors that surprised and delighted my taste buds. These meads easily bested some of my favorite beers in terms of depth of flavor. I was even more surprised to learn that all the meads I tried were around 15% ABV.
We then had a lot of fun sampling each others meads, and discussing process. Guild members brought meads that were as young as a week and a half old to almost as old as myself. The meads were flavored with orange, rosemary, mango and chile, clove, raspberry, strawberry, or just made with honey. The results were not always good, but learning about the diversity of approaches people took to the meads and what seemed to work and what didn’t was a pleasure even when drinking the mead might not have been. However, many of the homebrewed meads were delicious, and I felt privileged to get to try so many.
I also shared my own slight sparkling mead, which some were delighted to learn was fermented in a mason jar. Cato and I both received compliments and criticisms for our meads, but both of us felt slight ashamed of our beverages after the incredible meads that Michael provided.
The meeting also was finally a chance for me to ask more experienced brewers and tasters what might’ve happened to the coffee stout I was brewing for Colleen. As a recap, during fermentation solvent-type smells were coming out of the airlock, and after fermentation seemed to be complete the weather got warmer leading to a second krausen, this time yielding intensely fruity smells. The beer is a few months old now, but still has a strongly plastic/solvent aroma and is very astringent.
The uniform reaction from all my tasters was that I used too much coffee. I’m skeptical that this is the case, simply because I think it’s unclear where the coffee lies in the balance of flavors when the off-flavors are so strong. However, as to what exactly went wrong, there were several ideas:
1) The batch got infected. Personally I think this is unlikely since the beer already smelled pretty foul before the second krausen. The second krausen, in my reading a least, does not necessarily indicate an infection (which would be more likely to create a pellicle than a krausen anyway, since infections are usually bacterial, not yeast).
2) My mash temperature may have been much hotter than I thought it was. It is true that I had pretty poor temperature control of this mash, especially since I still had the grain bag tied up at this stage in my brewing. It was not uncommon for my mashes to swing by about thirty degrees while I tried to stabilize the temperature in the pot. However, having the grain bag tied up, I found that the interior of the bag was about 10-15 degrees F colder than the exterior, which would mean that I’d be more likely to mash too low than too high. I’d say this is possibly what went wrong, and that I extracted tannins and other nasty compounds that are creating the astringency and the aroma.
3) Unhappy yeast. Kind of a non-specific diagnosis, but also the most likely case in my opinion. The fact that US-05 was producing unusual aromas and had a second krausen seems indicative that they were unhappy about something.
The only possibility that no one proposed that I suspected myself was that there was a problem with chlorine compounds called chlorophenols. However, given the water profile of New York and the fact that I haven’t done anything special in any other batch to rid the water of chlorine or chloramine, it would also surprise me if this is truly what went wrong.
The meeting was a lot of fun, a great learning opportunity, and I look forward to returning next month.