Saturday, April 16, 2011

Ithaca Beer Co Apricot Wheat Beer

I haven't had a chance to visit Ithaca yet - I've driven through a couple of times though, and it's a beautiful place.  What I do know is that it's a small college town (population of around 30,000, according to Wikipedia), home to Cornell University and Ithaca College, with lots of natural beauty in and around the city.  It's in the south-eastern section of the Finger Lakes, about halfway between Syracuse and Elmira.  A cursory glance at some of the images of the city and the surrounding area makes me desperately want to spend more time there and discover more of the culture and countryside in this region - I really need to get out of the city more often.

Ithaca's also got one of the more prolific craft breweries in the area, appropriately named the Ithaca Beer Company.  They produce a wide range of brews, from the usual suspects like IPA, Pale Ale and Nut Brown, to less common varieties like Gorges Smoked Porter, CascaZilla (an aggressively-hopped Red Ale) and Ground Break (an 'American Saison').  They also carry the Excelsior Line, a series of premium-quality craft beers which come in 750ml bottles.  Can't wait to give those a try when the wallet allows...

Today we're looking at their Apricot Wheat, a familiar style which becomes really popular as the weather warms up.  'Winter warmer' beers lose their appeal for many and give way to easy-drinking, light-bodied, gently-hopped styles.

Ithaca's Apricot Wheat is a pretty good example of the fruit-beer style, it's got enough of a body that the fruit flavour doesn't totally overwhelm the experience, but it's definitely and unmistakably got that fruity hit that makes these beers so enjoyable.  Here's the breakdown:

Appearance - Like most wheat beers, this is pretty cloudy.  This was pretty cold from the fridge so there may have been some chill haze too.  No head to speak of, and only mild carbonation.

Aroma - the apricot esters come through in the aroma, but don't overpower the senses.  No major hoppiness, mild grainy aroma from the wheat.

Taste - the apricot flavour tasted ever so slightly artificial (I noticed it's brewed using 'natural apricot flavour' rather than fresh apricots).  The underlying wheat beer was detectable, with the grainy goodness and low bitterness you normally associate with that style.  Finished fairly dry, with the mildly plastic-like apricot flavouring lingering.

Mouthfeel - mildly carbonated, with a good medium body.  Pleasant, easy drinking beer.

Overall, this was a pretty good fruit beer.  I would definitely drink it again, especially as the weather warms up and I aim for something a little lighter.  I'm giving this a 3.5 out of 5.

I've got more reviews on the way, including Ithaca's CascaZilla, a locally-brewed British style beer, and my second homebrew batch.  I also have some exciting developments in the pipeline - watch this space!

Friday, April 8, 2011

My first homebrew batch, Code: Frankenstein

My in-laws bought me a Maestro Homebrew Beer Equipment Kit for Christmas, and the ingredients for my first homebrew batch.  I've promised a write up of this, and it's long overdue, so here goes!

First, here's the equipment I used:

 Muntons Malt Extract, Dry, Amber , 3-Pound Bags (Pack of 2)

6-quart stockpot for the boil

B-Brite cleanser

Though the link shows two 3-lb bags of dry malt extract, I only used one 2-lb bag.

First off, all the books I've read are very clear on the importance of cleanliness - which makes total sense.  If you're going to be producing what is ultimately a living product, and letting it sit at room temperature in your home for several weeks before drinking it, you certainly don't want it infected by any bacterial nasties.  Everything that touches the brew (particularly after the boil) has to be sanitised - the cleanser B-Brite was included with my kit, and it seemed to work well.  However, it turns out this wasn't actually a sanitiser, and in order to properly sterilise your equipment you need to use a product like Iodophor Sanitizer for Brewing or Wine Making or Star-San.  This wasn't included with my homebrewing kit. 

I started off with a boil - mixing about a gallon of water with the can of liquid malt extract and the dried extract.  When you first add the ingredients, the mixture kind of foams up violently and you have to keep moving it away from the heat until it calms down.  Eventually it settled into a steady boil, and looked like this.

At this point my tiny kitchen smelled absolutely amazing - wort has this incredible and unique aroma which is really hard to describe.  It's a bit like oatmeal, or a rich fruitcake - makes sense when you consider it's made of basically the same stuff.

After boiling the wort for about 45 minutes, it was ready to go.  I'd added some cold water to my fermenting bucket, so I poured the mixture on top and topped up to the 5-gallon mark.  Then I sprinkled the yeast (which came with the liquid extract), let it sit on top of the bucket for 10 minutes, then stirred it in and firmly sealed the lid, adding an airlock.

About 2 weeks later I bottled it into 6 growlers and 12 500ml flipper bottles, mixing in the corn sugar to carbonate it, then very, very patiently waited until it had conditioned and aged perfectly...well, alright, maybe I had a couple of glasses before it was ready - patience may be a virtue but it's not a skill I've yet mastered.

Sadly I don't have pictures of the final product, but I can describe it as a dark, almost black ale with a medium body - it wasn't a stout by any means.  ABV was approximately 5-6% - I forgot to take an OG reading so I couldn't tell for certain.  It wasn't aggressively bitter, but had a pleasant caramel hint in the aftertaste which was extremely satisfying.  As it was my first experience of bottle-conditioning, I under-filled several bottles which resulted in insufficient carbonation and zero head, but the growlers turned out better as they had a 'fill to here' line that was pretty foolproof.  Overall, I was impressed by my handiwork - it goes to show that even beginners can make fine homebrews that compare very favourably with commercially prepared beers and ales.

Homebrew batch # 2 - a Belgian ale named The Muscles from Brussels - is due for bottling tomorrow and I'll have a write-up in a few weeks, once it's ready to drink.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The ugly side of the beer world

I'm a little late on this one, but I just read about this story.  Essentially, Anthony Bourdain claimed on his Twitter account that Big Beer (I'm guessing he means the massive-swill-peddling-conglomerate-excuse-for-a-beer-company Anheuser-Busch, but I might be wrong) effectively shut down the promising Discovery Channel series Brew Masters.  If this has even an ounce of truth to it, it's shameful.  In his press statement, Sam Calagione of Dogfish Head is staying positive about the whole affair but he nonetheless said ' more than ever – support your small, truly-indie breweries!' 

For an interesting take on the battle between Big Beer and the craft breweries, take a look at Anat Baron's documentary Beer Wars.  Among others, it features Calagione and Dogfish Head, contrasting their business and brewing methods with the 'macrobrewers' like Anheuser-Busch.  Miller and Coors come off surprisingly easy in the documentary, but it's still a fascinating look into the political aspects of the resurgence of craft brewing.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Hogan's Hideaway Custom Brews

I like Rochester in the spring.  The evenings are lighter, the weather is just starting to turn, and all the greenery is slowly returning to the city.  Walking around in this weather, you feel like a weight's been lifted off of you and you can finally enjoy the natural beauty around you without fear of freezing to death.  The local farms are gearing up to sell their wares (I recommend signing up for a local CSA if you want to support Upstate NY's farming industry and get delicious fruit and veg throughout the summer), and the world feels like it's coming alive again.  It's wonderful. 

As the weather was so nice out this afternoon, my wife and I decided to go to Hogan's Hideaway on Park Avenue for a quick drink and a snack.  It's a decent place (though I have to say that the food portions were incredibly meagre for the prices we paid - around $8 for a small plate of nachos, and $2.50 for a cup of fries). The quality was decent enough, but I felt we'd have been better off making our own snacks for cheaper. Maybe I'm being unfair to the place - it's really popular, so we should probably go back for a full meal.

Anyway, this isn't about the food.  It's about the beers they serve - specifically the two custom beers brewed locally by Custom Brewcrafters, who've been featured on this blog before.  There are two brews currently on the menu - Hogan's Pale Ale and Park Avenue Ale.

Let's start with the Pale Ale. It was a light golden colour, with very little head.  Lightly carbonated, with a medium body and mouthfeel.  Wonderful floral hops in the aroma - reminded me of a less aggressive version of CB's Caged Alpha Monkey, which I briefly mentioned in an earlier entry.  A definite hoppy taste, with some malty flavour behind it, but not overpowering.  A good choice for a springtime beer - I can imagine myself sitting on the terrace at Hogan's on a warmer evening enjoying a few of these.  I'm going to give it a 4 out of 5.

The Park Avenue Ale is a dark ale, again with little head.  It had plenty of body, but it was nowhere near a stout.  You could clearly taste the roasted barley in this brew - the flavour profile emphasised the malt and toast over hoppy character, and was very pleasant (if dark ale's your thing).  This was definitely more of a winter brew.  It actually reminded me a lot of my first batch of homebrew, about which I'll soon be publishing my writeup.

In case you're interested, Homebrew Batch #2 is a Belgian Ale currently weighing in at around 7% ABV.  I'm really excited about this one...