Ziploc bags of frozen dried hops in hand, I took the L train to Williamsburg last October to brew a single hop beer with Ben Clayton. Ben, as I explained in my previous blog, is a New York City cocktail expert and craft brewer who has just launched a company, Freethought, dedicated to making unique small batch beers emphasizing locally grown ingredients. For example, their launch beer, Principia, is a sour ale featuring fennel pollen and local wildlflower honey. Ben now brews out of the Great South Bay craft brewery in Bayshore, but when I met him, we did it homestyle – literally. On his kitchen stove in the tiny studio apartment he shares with his wife, Jane, and dog, Neon. This was my first beer brewing experience.
The purpose of brewing something called a single hop beer in a small test batch is to gauge the flavor and aroma qualities of the hops in question. Paul and I want to know if the heirloom hops growing wild in our backyard in Cooperstown, NY are potentially special and worth propagating. Our oil profile test from Cornell University, although it let us know that our hops had not been dried sufficiently, did manage to show us that our hops have a nice amount of aroma-contributing compounds in them and aren’t blisteringly high on the bittering scale, which we don’t want. Comparing the levels of alpha and beta acids to known commercial hops, it seems like we might have something in the mid-range of flavorful European-style hops. So, we’re optimistic, and very curious to know how they will taste in a beer.
I arrived to find a small stainless steel tank sitting on a little butcher block table off to one side of the kitchen, next to the bathroom. It was full of wort, or the mix of grain and water that will form the basis of our beer, which Ben had cooked on the stovetop earlier that morning. While mostly made of barley, Ben had also added some rice for clarity and some oats for a creamy mouthfeel.
We perform something called a hop stand. This means that we add some of the hops to the wort and cook it a bit to begin to flavor the future beer.
For this stage, we choose to add the funkiest hops that I have with me. These hops smell almost like garlic, but in a pleasant way – I know garlic flavored beer doesn’t sound appealing (although later, I find out from the experts at the Hops and Brewing Conference at the Farmers Museum in Cooperstown that an allium smell in hops indicates that they have been harvested too late. Noted for the timing of next year’s harvest.)
First, we carefully empty the tank into the waiting stockpot below by opening the valve and letting the wort trickle out at a slow and controlled pace. Next, we place the full stockpot on the stove top and add several cups of the hops to the mixture, which we heat to a boil for a brief period. In total we add about half the hops I have, about 2 ounces dried.
Once cooled sufficiently, to this hopped wort mixture we add brewer’s yeast. Some of Ben’s future beers will be wild fermented, meaning they will ferment with the inclusion of whatever yeasts happen to be floating around in the air, just like sourdough bread. But for our purposes, industrial yeast in liquid form is the ticket. The wort will next ferment in a container called a carboy, a large glass tank with a narrow neck and a lock to prevent contamination during the fermentation process, for about two and a half weeks. Two days before the end of that fermentation period, Ben will flavor the beer again by adding the remaining hops, which smell strongly citrusy.
The Saturday after the final hops addition, Paul and I arrive for bottling. The liquid, which is basically flat beer, is waiting for us in a large bucket with a tap at the bottom atop the small butcher block island. Two cases of standard brown beer bottles, which Ben has sterilized in his dishwasher, wait on the formica kitchen table. We measure out a small quantity of dried yeast using a kitchen scale to calculate the correct amount for our volume of beer and mix this with sugar syrup, which Ben has boiled and then cooled down. We then add this mixture to the beer in the bucket. This is a step known as bottle conditioning, which means that over the next two to three weeks the yeast will eat the sugar in the liquid, carbonating the beer inside the bottle.
Ben shows us how to fill the bottles by inserting the long tube that descends from the tap at the bottom of the bucket into the bottle. The tube has a regulator, so it fills the bottles the exact amount needed, leaving just a bit of room at the top for the effects of bottle conditioning. Paul fills each bottles and hands them one by one to me. I cap them using a chunky manual bottle capper to seal the lids with fluted metal caps that I presoak in a small bowl of water. Ben then labels the caps with small pink circular labels. He writes “King” on each. We are so proud when his business partner calls and we hear Ben tell him “I’m bottling the Cooperstown beer with Julie and Paul from King Hops.” We toast each other with small sips of the warm flat beer, just to get an early read on its character. It tastes subtle, almost like cider.
In all, we bottle about 2 cases of beer, taking one with us and leaving one for Ben. These need to stay in a cool place for two weeks, then go into the fridge to chill before drinking. In our case, the beer’s journey is slightly complicated by the fact that we are leaving for Kenya in 5 days. So, at home we carefully wrap each bottle in a sock surrounded by other clothing, slip them into our duffels and cross our fingers. That they don’t break. That getting tossed around during transatlantic travel doesn’t kill all the yeast. That the customs officials at the Nairobi airport don’t confiscate them (thank you very much, nice customs lady, for letting us pass after you x-rayed our bags, even though I lied to your face and told you we only had 8 bottles when actually we had 15. And the permitted limit is only 1).
Finally, after an additional week resting in the pantry followed by 3 days in our refrigerator, we crack open two bottles of King Farm beer. It is delicious, if a bit flat (we must have killed off some of the yeast with all the moving around). A pale ale with a mild, fruity flavor reminiscent of honeydew melon, it is creamy on the mouth and delicate.
We are happy, but Ben is the expert, so I text him and wait for his feedback…..Yes! He likes it! He tastes honeydew! He thinks it’s a success. Hooray! And not just that, he wants to brew a lager with next year’s hops, so we invite him up for the August harvest and start making plans to install a trellis in the backyard to improve the yield and bring order to the hops bines.