I rarely, if ever, feel intense trepidation when trying a beer for the first time. But this one had me worried. It wasn’t dark, it was damned dark. It actually pulled in light from outside the glass, just to murder said light with its tremendous gravitational pull.
The head on this beer, too, was not to be believed. I’ve seen memory foam mattresses with less density and stopping power. Who knows what lurked inside this monstrosity, this abomination of beers. Drinking it appeared absolutely the antithesis of a salubrious experience.
Then imagine my surprise when I took that first sip and it not only didn’t kill me, but was good. It wouldn’t win any awards or anything, but it was easily more drinkable than I’d thought possible.
Wait, hold on…I guess it’s time for some back story. It was August last year and we were tasked to do a brewing demonstration for the ten year anniversary of Hollerbach’s Willow Tree Cafe. Aaron and I asked multiple award winning brewer Steve Vallancourt to help us with it. He’d decided on one of his signature brews, a Wee Heavy Scottish Ale. This is a rich, robust and malty brew with some fruity esters thrown in and very little hop character, just enough to temper the malt storm. With the recipe battle proven and our equipment checked and primed for brewing battle, we settled in for the brew day.
Little did we know twas the brew day from Hell. It began a few hours earlier, when we were in our Local Home Brew Shop and gathered the ingredients. We did have most of what we needed, but sold out on the yeast strain Steve wanted, and the only thing that could handle this upcoming cavalcade of destruction was a Trappist High Gravity yeast. Ostensibly this would dry out an otherwise super malty sweet beer. Well, it did that and more.
We like to use Beer Smith as our go to recipe builder and it has a lot of functionality, including changing the beginning temperatures for your equipment and water. With the brewing starting at 6pm, we put the stainless steel equipment out at around 4:30pm. In the sun. In Florida. So when we told Beer Smith that our starting ambient temperature was 75 degrees, well, lets just say we were off. By around 50 degrees. So after putting 145 degree water in to buffer the starting temp and raise it to a protein rest at 122, we discovered the horrible truth about how hot our equipment was and we were sitting at around 150. So we threw in ice cubes. A lot of them. After getting the grain and water mash down to 90 degrees, we ramped it back up to 122.
At this time we started our RIMS system and was set to let it go for about 30 minutes. Then the false bottom collapsed. The type we had had bracers on the bottom of it that came apart like bladed Lincoln logs. The actual false bottom rested on top of these blades. We had to go in manually to remove and reshape the blades so that the bottom fit on it again, which involved moving the 17lbs of grain and five gallons of water out of the way by hand, wrenching the blades from underneath the bottom, reshaping them with a rubber mallet and replacing the whole thing. During this time, the temp went back down, so we ramped it back up.
Dark clouds began to form overheard, literally. An enormous storm was approaching and dumped all over us. With it came unseasonably cold winds and temperatures. Now, we went back below our target temp. When we raised to the next target temp, our RIMS system pump went bye bye and we were getting the temp readings from the tube cut off from the rest of the mash so we raised the heat. Well, now we’re over again. We realize this quick, turn off the RIMS and discard it from equation…it had done enough damage. Our all over the place mash temps finally hit 154 for an hour then mash out at 168. It only took 3 hours to do a one and a half hour mash.
So now we drain the liquid through the false bottom and rinse the grains with hot water. After collecting almost 9 gallons of wort, we taste the grains. “Our efficiency is for shit!” exclaimed Steve. So while Aaron and I have a lot of admiring guests inside the store and abroad at the restaurant to attend to, Steve does a gravity reading and grabs bags of dried malt extract off the shelves to remedy our shit efficiency problem. We’re not sure how much he grabbed or what kind. The howling winds kept blowing things around and making our boil all weird. Through the turmoil and the rain we managed to finally get the boil over with, albeit with a little over 5 gallons of wort still left from a very vigorous 1 ½ hour boil.
So now, to the cooling of the wort. Uh oh, wait…our favorite methods (immersion chiller and counter flow chiller) won’t work because the water pressure from the nearest source is too weak to use, plus it’s at 80 degrees! Aaron finally comes up with a way to use the pump that’s still working and a cooler full of ice and water to utilize the immersion chiller (much to the dismay of Steve) to recirculate cold water through his make shift hose contraption and we cool the wort.
By now, it’s 11:30 and our wives are begging us to give up, pour this monstrosity out and go home. “NAY! Nay we say, because through all of this we have suffered, and the beer has suffered. We shall make this thing somehow tasty! We will not give up! We still have beer to drink, yeast to pitch and to get this thing to the brew house.” One more beer, then…we gave up. The beer was air locked and put away in the kitchen (to the tune of the kitchen folk the next day, armed with pitchforks and chef knives saying “what is that thing?”) with the yeast starter settling back down.
The next day, bleary eyed and distraught, we went back to the Market and found the discarded beer, desolate and dejected as the ambient light probably destroyed the hops and further mutated this beer into legendary status of failures. Undaunted yet hung over, we pitch the yeast and take it to the brew house.
There, this beer threw off its air lock several times, grew mold on its surface, broke the very carboy it was in…this was bad. We transfer to another car boy for fermentation, we see more mold growing on it. Sure enough, our entire fermentation chamber is rife with the stuff. We drag the whole thing out into the sun, beer put aside in the shade, and flush it out with bleach and a lot of scrubbing. Then an exorcism.
Eventually we kegged it. Then found out two months into conditioning that the keg didn’t hold any pressure, so it was leaching in oxygen, beer’s nemesis once fermentation is at its end.
So we switch kegs and pressurize it, then put it in a 40 degree cooler for a few months. Then, because we had storage issues, we put it in a cooler at the brew house at 68 degrees for a month or three…we lost count. Finally, we brought it back to the Market and put it away for a few weeks.
After getting brain transplants and remembering that it was there, due to our hectic schedules and such, we set out to putting more pressure to it and dispensing it. Oops. The inlet and outlet plugs were reversed, so Frankenstein spewed beer into the C02 hose it what may have been it’s final act of defiance. So, we clean up the mess, take apart the barbs and sanitize them them reconnect them to finally taste this beer.
Whoa. It’s not bad! Not anywhere near what was intended, but it turned out okay. It’s a cautionary tale of being too cautious. Everything that could be wrong with this beer happened, and yet all the things you hear will happen, didn’t happen. No infection, no spoilage, very little Sherry quality…just a good beer.
It reminded us that beer is a living thing. It wants to be tasty. It overcomes adversity. It loves those who make it. It transcends complications. This little (no way is it little, only Steve knows the original gravity, but it’s well above 10% abv) beer made us proud, even if it’s closer to a foreign imperial stout than a Wee Heavy, or so we’ve been told…kinda more of a “fits no known category” type beer.
Would I drink it everyday? No. Mostly because I took a sip from one on a beer class night and lost my vision for a brief period of time. Well, my blood pressure to blood sugar may have had a hand in that, power chugging coffee all day and not eating, but it was scary none the less.
Here’s the summation you’ve imperturbably waited for: even if your beer doesn’t turn out to be an award winning example of your favorite style, it’s still YOUR beer. Just rename it to something it more closely resembles! Keep making and drinking your own beer!