Ramble On

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Another IPA Brewed with @hawksbillhops

Still working with the new half-barrel brewing system that will eventually become the pilot system for Hawksbill Brewing, the team experimented with an IPA a few weekends back.  This one was on the heels of an English Brown Ale and a Coffee Porter, so with two brews down we were hoping that we would finally have the groove down with the work flow.

Kevin had researched a recipe that would use the kinds of hops we are likely to have available locally - which from the farm at Hawksbill Hop Yards will be Cascade, Chinook, Columbus, Fuggles, and Goldings, and with any luck, maybe some Centennial this year.  As it turned out, there were still two pounds left from last year's Cascades, so we used most of one of them in this brew - they were combined with a share of Fuggles that Kevin had left from his crop.

Equal measures of the two hop varieties in two additions, followed by an aroma addition at flame out that was all Citra pellets - we don't grow that variety so it was the exception to our strategy of using local hops for this.  In the future, if we start pelletizing the Hawksbill Hop Yard crop, we can use some of the Cascade for this purpose.

David tells us that fermentation is nearly complete on this one, and he's already sampled it.  There's a burst of aroma from the pour, and he was pleased at the intensity of the IPA taste afterwards.  Sounds like we are on to something - we'll need a couple of IPAs in the repertoire when the brewery gets up and running.

And it won't be long before I have a chance to sample it as well - I have some work to do in the hop yard this weekend, and I may come around for some refreshments.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Visiting Swover Creek Farm Brewery

On Thursday I found myself out in the Valley on brewery and hops business – I’d scheduled a meeting in Winchester but it was moved to Woodstock.  From Winchester I had planned to visit my friend Jonathan up in Lucketts Mill, but I canceled that due to the longer drive after Woodstock.  Instead, I took a drive over to Swover Creek Farm Brewery.

The last time I went to Woodstock, I didn’t make it.  Mary was with me and we were on the way to the new Woodstock Brew House, but we hit a buck that totaled the car.  We hadn’t ventured back since then, although I’d still like to go check out the brewery.

Over the last few years as I have gotten involved with the hop yard and now that we are beginning to plan the brewery, I met the proprietors of Swover Creek.  They have a hop yard on the property and were early members of the Old Dominion Hops Co-op, and they eventually moved forward opening a farm brewery on the property.  It’s a pretty inspiring story that matches my aspirations.

With time on my hands, I checked both Woodstock and Swover Creek and found that Woodstock wasn’t open until 4pm, but Swover Creek opened at noon, so I decided to take the drive out to Swover Creek.  This neck of the woods also has a favorite vineyard of ours, North Mountain, which I written about before – and they are growing hops as well, but whenever I am there, I remind myself that the big mountain to the west is North Mountain, and that’s West Virginia.  It’s close enough that you could almost reach out and touch it.

Once I got there, I ordered a flight, highlighted by the Red Clay IPA and the Coffee Stout (on Nitro!).  There were a couple of locals in the tap room, so I struck up a conversation with a few of them (I was in my farm shirt with the logo, which I have found opens doors in the industry).  They were useful contacts that I hope to have a chance to talk with further.

Proprietor Lynn was in the tap room and offered a brewery tour, which I gleefully took advantage of – they also shared some farm-made andouille sausage and zucchini relish that I couldn’t resist.  I learned their story of starting with a half-barrel system and growing to the current 3.5-barrel system that fills the brew kitchen – the story is on their web site, which is linked above.  Obviously, there was a lot of perspective to be gained to an aspiring brewery operator!

I took away some good lessons from the visit and shared them with my partners at Hawksbill Brewing, David and Kevin.  Very helpful insights that are going to help us stay on track as we continue to make our own progress on this journey!

Now back to the tasting - so far I've found that every one of the Virginia breweries I visited have at least one memorable offering, and Swover Creek was no exception.  The Red Clay IPA came highly recommended by the brewtender, and I was not disappointed.  But an even more pleasant surprise awaited with the Coffee Stout (on Nitro!) - it's a style that is trending right now, and I am quite fond of it, but also there is this technique of using nitrogen gas during tapping.

I'll do some research for a future post, but it is said that using Nitro was pioneered by Guinness (who doesn't love a Guinness?) but we are finding it used more and more by craft brewers in Virginia and nationally.  Heck, we're even using it during our pilot brews - by coincidence we just did a Coffee Porter pilot and put a 5-gallon keg on nitro! 

All in all, I had a lucky day.  My business meetings went well, and time will tell if they were successful.  But the real luck came because the meeting moved and I had some found time - and I had an opportunity to meet some great people at an up-and-coming farm brewery!

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Bees Have a Good View

On Sunday I decided that Tessie and I should drive over to Hawksbill Hop Yards and scout for progress on the bines.  While it's early in the season - May 14 is the frost free date in the Valley - I wanted to see how things were going.  And since the dog was along, we took a walk out into the other fields at Public House Produce once the scouting trip was over.

Just across the little drainage from the hop yards is an "idle" field - at least it appears that way.  But at the produce farm this field has two key purposes - one, it's a key forage area for the bees that will be busy pollinating the crops later in the season, and two, it's a food patch that serves to keep some of the deer at bay from the other crops.

With the proliferation of the varmints, you could argue whether or not it's a success in that second role, but as far as the first goes, I think the bees are happy.

David has a cover crop in right now that will serve to nourish the bees in the early going.  As Tessie and I walked along I noticed the incredible view of Stonyman Mountain in Shenandoah National Park just over there in the distance, so I had to stop for a moment to admire it.

Then as we turned to walk back to the hops, I went to have a look at the apiary.  It was too cold for much activity in the hives, so I was able to get close.  I had to cajole Tess a bit to keep her away from the electric fence, fortunately this was a listening day for her and she didn't get a "life lesson."

But that could happen some day - I wouldn't bet against it.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Shakedown Batch 2 - The Coffee Porter

Since I wasn’t able to participate in the first pilot brew, I made plans to be there for the second.  The planned recipe was a coffee porter – the idea of combining cold-brewed coffee with porters and stouts is very popular these days, and I’ve found some good ones in the offering commercially from Sierra Nevada and Schlafly.  So it’s a natural conclusion to want to have one of these on the rotation eventually.

When I arrived, the team was working on the mash.
When I arrived, the team had already brought the hot liquor tank up to temperature and the grain was milled.  As before, in true shakedown style, there were some hitches in the process – true learning experiences that I see as an investment of time and effort to build skills.

The situations reminded me of my first terrified homebrewing experience when I graduated from one gallon batches to five gallon batches.  I’d made all of this investment in the equipment and the recipe kit – and when I went to do a check on fermentation about a teaspoon of my sanitation solution spilled in the beer.

Sanitation is the key to good beer, so it’s not unusual to have a solution around all the time while doing chores in the brewery.  I use a food grade product that offers the convenience of no rinse application, so after I checked the label to see if this small dilution would be okay in a five-gallon batch, I relaxed a little.

Eventually I called a friend about it though, and he reminded me that people have been brewing for 5,000 years, and sanitation hasn’t even been a science that long.  You can imagine brewers in the dark ages using malt that had been ransacked by rodents, animals crawling around in it, maybe feces dropping in there…so here I was worried that I might have a little sani-solution mixed in to my brew.
A side chore for the day was to move the Brown Barn Ale -
the "extra special bitter" - into a keg.
That conversation ended with the comment, “Relax, don't worry, and have a homebrew!” So flash forward a few years and here we are going through the steps of a shakedown on the pilot system – my sense of it was we should experience the whole thing and learn how to operate as a team.
Since the cooler needed to be set for some hop yard supplies
(lower than fermentation temps) the coffee porter is going
to ferment in the garage.

So when I arrived, the guys were in the middle of figuring out some wort flow issues with the mash and the hoses and pumps – eventually diagnosed that the grain had been milled too finely.  The fix was to do a few of the steps manually, and during implementation that meant we got a longer protein rest at a lower temperature than the recipe called for…at the end of all of this we still had an O.G. that will yield a session alcohol by volume level.

Plus, it will be a coffee porter.  You know, the flavor of a beer like that is the key, not so much the ABV – so we’re looking forward to what’s likely to be a good thing!

Monday, April 11, 2016

The Shakedown Brew

The pilot system gleaming in the sun
of an early spring morning.
While the brewery is still in developmental stages and the licensing process is underway, we cannot brew beer and we certainly cannot sell it.  Meanwhile we still have some work to do on getting recipes together and perfecting all the steps needed to make beer, so we bought a pilot half-barrel brewing system and shopped it out to a local home brewer for all these shake down activities.
The malt for the first pilot brew.

After unboxing and assembling the system a few weeks ago, there was a lot of preparation for the first brew.  A brown ale was selected, and since it was brewed in a barn, the name for it was Brown Barn Ale. 

Local Fuggles and Cascade hops were used,
provided by one of the neighbors.
In true shakedown style, the grain was milled and then went into the mash tun.  The brewing process flowed from there – pumps and hoses and plate chillers and all.  At the end of it, the beer went into the fermenter at a good pitching temperature – just about 70 degrees. 

The fermentation process was carefully monitored over the course of about two weeks.  A northern English ale yeast was chosen for fermentation on this, but some recipe substitutions had to be made on the hops bill. 

Pitching the northern English ale yeast.
The product ends up just a little more bitter than what you might expect for a brown ale, so our brewing team promoted it – it’s now an extra special bitter. 

True to form in brewing, where you might find your taste tends more towards aroma hops than bitter hops, this will appeal to some but not all.  But it is still very drinkable and I’m sure that every drop will be consumed as the recipe development and equipment shakedown processes continue.

And the best part is it was our first one, made on the pilot system that eventually will become part of the brewery.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Revisiting the La Belle Discotheque Bombing

April 5 is an important day in American history - mainly because it is the anniversary of MLK's assassination.  That happened when I was a youngster, and although I was too young to understand the man's significance when it happened, his impact was clear as I grew up.  After all, the neighborhood I moved to in Washington, DC in 1992 still bore the scars of the unrest that happened after his death 26 years earlier in 1968.

On a more personal note, April 5 is the day before the anniversary of my USAF enlistment in 1980, and my discharge six years later, in 1986.  On that Sunday morning in 1986, I boarded a flight from Berlin's Tegel airport and out-processed the next day, April 6, at McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey.

In 2012, I wrote about the La Belle Discotheque bombing in a post linked here - the whole chronology of my evening on April 5 is there, along with a brief description of the events afterwards.

Going forward to 2016, I chanced to read a post about the bombing on Facebook (my 2012 post was also inspired by a friend's post on Facebook).  This time, I was amazed to see the author of the post - Abdul - who was one of the guys I encountered at the base NCO club that evening.  He and his friends had said they were on their way to La Belle and invited us along.

So here we are, 30 years later, and I was finally hearing the rest of his story - they were en route to the club when the blast happened, and arrived there shortly after.  I had heard over the years that he or some of the friends he went with were injured, but that wasn't true either. Abdul's post about the disco concludes with the following quote:

"Thanking God we didn't make it there during the explosion but we were enroute to this club the night they blew it up. Prayers and blessing to those who were in there especially the Army soldier whose life was tragically taken too soon. We had some great times inside Club LaBelle."

I'm so glad and relieved to hear this news all these years later.

(note:  After I posted this, I learned that there were a few USAF guys who were injured in the bombing - but none that I knew personally.  Several other friends were either there or on their way, so I guess the event could have had an even bigger impact on my circles.  Still, it's worthwhile to take a moment to think about those injured from this criminal act.  I hope they are having good lives despite the tragedy,)