Total Pageviews

Monday, September 17, 2012

Brewing Obama\'s Ale, Step by Step


This month, after word got out that the White House was brewing its own beer, President Obama's staff released its recipe for White House Honey Ale. Diner's Journal asked Garrett Oliver, the brewmaster at Brooklyn Brewery, to make a batch that we could sample and assess. And on Friday, Mr. Oliver started the brewing â€" a monthlong process that we'll occasionally drop in on, offering a glimpse of brewing both for those who know the art and for those who don't.

People often ask me whether I still brew beer at home. Although I'm an avid cook, I never brewed at home again after I started doing it professionally back in 1989. So to brew our White House Honey Ale, I went to see our friends at the near by Brooklyn Kitchen, where I and my brewing team have cooked many dinners. I borrowed a brewing pot from our brewery's lab manager, Tom Price, who told me it had never been used. “I bought it and meant to use it more than four years ago,” he said, “but then I ended up coming to work here and it ended up on a shelf at home.”

Beer is an odd food product, in that many people who drink it regularly aren't entirely sure what how it comes to be. To put it briefly, making beer requires breaking down grain starches into sugars, flavoring the resulting sweet liquid with hop flowers, then fermenting it with yeast.

Before I could start brewing, the recipe needed a little interpretation. The White House formula, while promising, is sometimes a bit short on detail. (Our emails to officials seeking clarification got caught up in bureaucratic channels last week, but admittedly the administration had a few bigger matters to deal with.)

The first step in beer-maki ng is to steep some crushed malted grains in the brewing pot to extract flavors. The recipe calls for Biscuit Malt, which gives a nutty, toasty flavor. It also calls for Amber Crystal Malt, but all crystal malt is amber and there are various types. In crystal malt, the starch inside the barley seed is stewed and broken down into sugar, then the grain is roasted until the sugar caramelizes and crystallizes inside the husk. This type of malt lends an amber color and caramel flavor to many types of beer, including my own Brooklyn Lager.

I picked a medium amber grade and steeped our grains in a nylon mesh bag for a half-hour. Then I removed our little satchel, and we had some slightly sweet barley-flavored water. It was now time to create the wort, the sweet liquid that we'll ferment into beer.

In the White House recipe, some of the work has already been done. It calls for canned malt extract, a very heavy syrup made from barley malt , so we won't have to convert the grain into sugars ourselves. There are many manufacturers of malt extract, and the recipe doesn't specify a brand; we went with a Wisconsin producer, Briess, for all of our malt extract.

As I brought the wort to a boil, the kitchen filled with a familiar aroma, not unlike that of baking bread.As per the instructions, I added East Kent Golding hops (a British variety more than 200 years old) and a mineral salt called gypsum. The gypsum hardens the soft Brooklyn water, once prized by the almost 50 breweries that flourished in the borough around the turn of the 20th century. Adding gypsum is sometimes called “Burtonizing,” recalling the mineral-rich waters of Burton-on-Trent, England, a town once famous for its pale ales. While soft water makes nice German-style pilsners, water hardened by gypsum gives pale ales their trademark snappiness.

Our couple of gallons of wort boiled merrily along for 45 minutes, until it was time t o add the pound of honey. Honey has a lot of volatile aromatics, and if we had added it earlier, some of that aroma might have boiled off. So the recipe adds it toward the end of the boil, locking the flavors into the wort. We used the same product we use at the brewery, a raw wildflower honey from Tremblay Apiaries, in the Southern Tier of New York State.

The recipe calls the hops we added earlier the “first flavoring.” That step is largely to add bitterness, which hops don't give up until they're boiled for a while. The “second flavoring” of hops, added right at the end of the boil, is largely for aroma. As with the honey, hop aromatics will boil off if the hops are added early.

Here we found a discrepancy in the recipe (scandal!) - we'll call it “the case of the missing Fuggles.” The ingredients call for 1½ ounces of the Fuggle hop variety, but the directions tell us to add only a ½ ounce. Lacking direction from the White House, we forged ahe ad and added the entire 1½ ounces.

If we added yeast to our piping hot wort, it would die instantly. That wouldn't be good, as it's the yeast that turns wort into beer by consuming sugar and giving off flavor, alcohol and carbon dioxide. So we now diluted the concentrated wort and cooled it down. We had been rehydrating some dried yeast, the same Windsor variety used by the White House. Different yeasts will create different flavors while fermenting, so using the same yeast is important if we want to get similar results.

We set the brewing pot into an ice bath, and after 10 minutes of stirring, we were down to about 80 degrees. We poured the concentrated wort into the cool water in our fermentation vessel, the type of five-gallon glass jug once widely used for bottled water coolers. I added the yeast, thanked my hosts and drove the jug to a lightly chilled room at the brewery. Overnight, the yeast woke up and started its feeding frenzy - and by Monday morning it was bubbling away.