I’ve spoken before about how beer can change over the years. I don’t really know a lot of brewers who develop a beer recipe and then stick with that exact recipe forever without ever taking into consideration any changes with raw materials. Maybe they do exist and I’d be curious if anyone out there knows of any brewers who adopt the “one recipe forever” philosophy.
My time in the world of beer has definitely taught me a thing or two about recipe development and the importance of raw material selection. Taking cues from what nature provides us means that we have to bend and twist our recipes and processes to be able to continue producing the beer that we have in our mind’s eye. I love the first sniff of a new season hops and the way that the brain takes that combination of aromas and builds a convoluted pathway that slowly morphs into how those wonderful smells will translate into a finished beer.
The same goes with the rush of saliva that accompanies that mouthful of dry, crisp biscuity malted barley. Almost as if those enzymes want to begin smashing up all of the starch granules the minute they hit your tongue (did you know that one of our salivary enzymes and one of the enzymes responsible for breaking starch down into more simple sugars in barley – amylase – are forms of the same enzyme?).
When it comes to a beer like Epic Pale Ale, we are constantly aware of the ingredients that we use. This beer uses only one hop variety, Cascade from the USA and because it is reliant on this for all of it’s hop character and bitterness, we find ourselves engaged in a month-by-month repartee with this enigmatic flower. The thing with hops is that they change. The changes may be subtle and impossible for most to detect from batch to batch, but they nonetheless occur. Whether it is the usual seasonal variation that occurs with almost every plant due to things such as rainfall, ambient temperature, the mineral content of soil or even external attacks on the plant from pests or diseases weakening the bine.
The other things to take into consideration include storage conditions of the finished hops and the hop chemistry of the varietals you are using in a brew. Let’s have a little look at hop storage. Alpha acids, the group of compounds known as humulones are responsible for the bitterness of a beer once boiled. They’re not the most stable of compounds meaning that after harvest, these alpha acid levels begin to fall and this can be exacerbated by storage temperature and the way in which they are stored. Different varieties tend to store differently with some seeming to lose more of their bittering potential over time. Hop aromatics can also change during storage, with some decreasing and others actually increasing in aroma potential.
In our experience, US Cascade has tended to throw out a hint more grapefruit peel as it ages and the wonderful rosewater/Turkish Delight note that I instantly recognise as one of the main characteristics of Epic Pale Ale tends to dissipate slightly over storage. We store our hops at 1-2°C and because there is only one harvest per year, we have to be very aware of these changes, responding to them as soon as we can. There is a brilliant table in the book by Ray Daniels, Designing Great Beers, that shows figures from analysis of alpha acids in US Cascade after one year storage at varying temperatures. At 20°C, only 35% of the total alpha acids remain in the hop, at 1°C, 65% of the alpha acids remain, at -7°C, 74% remain and at -15°C, 81% remain.
My advice? Keep your bittering hops in the freezer if you can!
Our malted barley is another area in which we find it necessary to step in and alter the process when necessary. Using malts from as far away as the United Kingdom and Germany in our Pale Ale means that sometimes we may need to change our maltster based on what our malt importer can get in. With a change of maltster can sometimes come a change in malt characteristics. For example, going from Baird’s Caramalt to Thomas Fawcett Caramalt may mean there are slight alterations in malt flavour and colour contributions due to the degree of crystallisation or caramelisation during the kilning process. This has to be addressed as it happens so that we can maintain consistent colour and flavour in our beer. Sometimes however, it’s important to play a little and experiment with grist bills (and hopping rates) to ensure you can get the best results possible from your ingredients. If you can potentially make your beer taste better, then there’s only one choice really!
Which brings me to 2012 and our Epic Pale Ale. We’re patiently waiting for our new shipment of US Cascade hops to be packed up and shipped off, so there are a few months until the new season’s stuff arrives. When it does, this will see more reformulation as we look at blending the remainder of last season’s hops with the new hops resulting in tasty awesomeness (this is a technical term…). Our rebooted Pale Ale has had a few tweaks to it’s malt bill as well as an emphasis on bitterness from late/aroma hopping in the whirlpool and a bit of an increase in our dry hopping rate. Well, a bit more than “a bit”… we’ve increased the dry hop by a third!
If you’re curious in seeing if you can spot the difference between batches, any 500 mL bottles that have a Best Before date of 21.12.12 and any 330 mL bottles that have a Best Before date of 13.01.13 include our tasty rebooted Pale Ale. Also, we’ve just started releasing our kegs of this, so come February, all keg Pale Ale will be rebooted!