Friday, February 5, 2016

Pro-Am Brew Session with Shannon Brewing Co.

We have been very fortunate lately to receive such amazing feedback and encouragement from all of our friends, family, and followers of the blog. I want to begin this post by thanking all of you for making this so much more than a hobby for us. It has evolved into a full-fledged passion, one that has provided endless opportunities in which to continue to learn and enjoy ourselves. For those of you who are interested, our offer stands: let us know what kind of beer you want, and we'll brew up a batch just for you. You can even come and brew it with us!

Thanks to our Best in Show win at Operation Bravo Homebrew Competition and Hero Appreciation Event held at Shannon Brewing last November, we had the privilege to brew our winning recipe with Shannon Carter this past weekend. Our beer was a robust porter called Rio Bravo porter. The first incarnation of this beer was made with roasted Hatch chile peppers. That beer turned out great, so last year we decided to brew the base recipe and see how it turned out. All we planned on at that point was having it on tap in the kegerator for Aggie football season.

When we learned about Operation Bravo, we thought it would be fun to participate. I've already detailed the fine work that Homebrew For Heroes does and how the event went for us, but I have to stress that I had no inkling that our football beer would win the day. In fact, when the judges announced the winners, they claimed my beer was a Dry Irish Stout. This is an easy enough mistake since it is common to group several dark beers (from porters to stouts) together at judges' tables. We're just thankful they liked our beer and gave us this rare opportunity to brew with the big boys.

At dawn... we brew.
We woke up early Saturday morning to make the trek from Arlington to north Keller (when I say trek, I mean the usual commute I make every day - the brewery is half a mile away from my office, which can be tempting). Shannon Carter, Jacob Prosser, and a Shannon Brewing volunteer named Connor greeted us warmly as we began to heat strike water and munched on some donuts and kolaches. We planned to brew about a barrel of the porter with a few minor tweaks so that it would work on their pilot batch system. I have only ever used the Brew in a Bag (BIAB) method of all-grain brewing, with pretty low efficiency and a much smaller collection of tools and equipment than most brewers I know. I would say I like to keep it simple, but the cold hard truth is I'm cheap and the tools and toys I want are not.

Where my equipment profile lacks depth, Shannon's is overflowing with several options for implementing them in brew day. Shannon's pilot batch system is basically the proof of concept prototype for his full-scale 20 barrel fire-brewed system. The system has everything you could want to produce incredibly clean, clear wort ready for yeast to do their thing.

Our mash went through a protein rest phase to work on the flaked oats and then stepped up to saccharification to extract our fermentable sugars. The mash efficiency was so high, we ended up topping the boil kettle off with a little more water in an effort to keep our potential alcohol by volume within reason. It was at this point with beautifully roasty aromas swirling and high gravity in mind that we decided to call this beer a Breakfast Stout rather than a Porter. It even fits with the grain bill given the flaked oats added for mouthfeel and the coffee-like aromas generated by our roast barley.

We proceeded through the boil with minor changes in the hops because my original recipe was created at a time when I needed to use whatever extra hops I had lying around. In this case, my original bittering charge was Fuggles, which does not have near the normal amount of bitterness contribution that other varietals do (about 4-5% alpha acids). Had we gone with the exact hopping schedule, we would have had 2-3 times as much hop material in the boil to try to filter out of the beer during chilling. Smart money said to go with a higher alpha acid hop (more bitterness per ounce) and make brew day a little easier.

For fermentation, Shannon pulled his Blichmann Fermenator out for us to clean, sanitize, and assemble specifically for this batch of beer. Assembly felt like putting a rocket ship together, although after piecing together my first valve, I quickly learned where everything fit together on the vessel. If I ever have a few hundred extra dollars lying around, a Fermenator will be on my wishlist.

We also used a few pieces of equipment I've never really seen in action before. Attached to the pump "station" - for lack of a better word - were a plate chiller and a hop rocket. Plate chillers are souped up versions of other common heat exchangers like immersion or standard counter-flow wort chillers. Cold water is pumped through one side of it while hot wort is pumped through the opposite side to exchange its heat to the water. This totally sanitary process reduces the temperature of the wort MUCH faster than regular wort chillers or an ice bath ever could. We didn't even have to recirculate the out-flowing wort back through the boil kettle.

Also attached to our little station was a device called a hop back. More specifically, this was Blichmann's Hop Rocket (Blichmann Engineering makes all sorts of brewing apparatus and is pretty much the top of the line, with lifetime warranties to boot). Hot wort is pulled through the pump then forced through a mass of fresh Saaz hops in the Hop Rocket to impart an earthy, slightly spicy aroma to the beer without any risk of picking up oxygen while the wort is too hot. At high temperatures, oxygen pickup can lead to something called hot-side aeration, which can produce off flavors in your beer. The Hop Rocket is loaded with fresh whole-cone hops and purged of oxygen by carbon dioxide, so there was no risk of fouling the batch. Once the wort is cooled to pitching temperature, oxygen helps kickstart yeast activity, so Shannon hooked up an oxygenation stone inline to the fermenter. We flipped a switch and transferred the whole batch through the station right into the fermenter.

Getting to brew on such professional equipment with actual brewing professionals was a very fulfilling experience for us. We were able to ask questions, check out equipment we've never really had a chance to use before, and play with measurement devices that go above and beyond the ol' hydrometer floating in wort, all while being in the presence of true craft beer fans. Experiences like these don't come every day (well maybe if you actually work in a brewery they do) and I'm thankful that Amanda and I got to share this one with each other. What it really boils down to is passion. Passion makes excellent beer and even better memories.

I want to once again thank Operation Bravo and Homebrew For Heroes for hosting an awesome event and for allowing me to step further into my passion for homebrewing. I also want to thank Shannon Carter, Jacob Prosser, and Connor for giving up their free Saturday morning to brew with a couple of beer nerds.

We can't wait to taste the Breakfast Stout when it's finished! Y'all can taste it as well in a couple weeks when it hits the Shannon tap room. Once they have it tapped and ready to serve, we'll spread the news like wildfire so you have a chance to taste the small batch we made. I hope you enjoy it at least as much as we enjoyed making it for you.

Til then, Cheers!

If you want to learn a little more about David, here is a one-on-one interview with him on Atypical DFW Podcast (free on iTunes, Android, Spreaker, and any other podcast app you can think of). If you like what you hear, make sure to subscribe to the podcast and like Atypical DFW Podcast on Facebook!

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