Craft beer, and even more so with homebrewers, the emphasis is too often on “more.” Bigger, bolder, hoppier does NOT always mean better.
I’ve fallen into the trap. Once I figured out that it was in fact possible to make my own beer, and make beer with similar if not the same ingredients as many craft breweries that charge over $12 per 6-pack, or $8+ for a single 22 oz bottle, I wanted to make BIG beers. However, there is a movement within craft brewing to offer flavorful, but lower ABV beers. “Session beer” is the term you will hear. What defines a session beer depends on the individual… and considering the number of 9-10% Imperial styles out there, a 7% IPA sometimes seems like a session beer. But, the general consensus is that a session beer is typically under 5% abv.
The hard part is creating a beer with low alcohol that yet retains a lot of flavor, aroma, and mouthfeel. One local (MA) brewer who has staked his entire business on session beers is Chris Lohring at Notch Brewing. His Notch Session Ale and Session (Czech) Pils have a strong following, and have proven that big beers are not the only ones with craft beer appeal. Alongside the Ale and Pils, Chris also has a year-round Saison. These are all available in reasonably priced ($9) 6-packs. Notch Brewing also has a lot of seasonal and one-off releases, like the delicious Cerne Pivo, which I reviewed here not long ago.
So, with my last batches of homebrew being a 6.4% rye IPA and a 6.9% American brown, I opted to go out of the comfort zone. Away from the reliable beers that I know best, away from the safe and reliable California Ale yeast strain, away from pacific northwest hops that tend to dominate most beers I drink… I brewed an English bitter.
Now there are 3 “levels” of British bitters… the BJCP style guide can explain the differences better than I can. Ordinary Bitter; Premium or Best Bitter; and Extra Special Bitter (ESB). Of course, American beer drinkers are going to be more familiar with the higher abv ESB than the other two. However, I chose the Best Bitter. Around 4-4.6% abv, these beers allow more focus on the malt, with the hops mainly there to provide bitterness as opposed to flavor and aroma. My recipe came from a Brewing Network “Jamil Show” episode from several years ago. According to the brewing software, I was looking at roughly 4.6%.
This brew marked several firsts for me:
• Marris Otter pale malt as my base malt. This British malt is said to offer a bit more flavor and a tiny bit more color than standard American 2-row malt. Many feel it’s required for an English bitter.
• all English hops, and just 1 hop variety: the recipe called for all East Kent Goldings, but the lhbs didn’t have any, so I opted for another English hop of similar alpha acid rating, Fuggles.
• English ale yeast: Wyeast 1968 London ESB yeast. This proved to be extremely different compared to my standard Cal ale yeast I use for all pale ales, IPAs, the brown ale, etc. It’s known to be less attenuative compared to the cal ale yeast, and it flocculates (congeals and drops out of solution) like nothing I’ve seen.
I made a yeast starter about a week prior to what ended up being the brew day. The yeast did it’s job in a day or so and then settled out in large clumps at the bottom of the flask. I stored it in the fridge until the morning of the brew day. I decanted much of the beer from the flask, leaving the yeast at the bottom. I then boiled up another liter of wort (using dried malt extract, DME), chilled it, and added to the flask. A brew session can take 4-5 hours, so by the time I had finished brewing and was chilling the wort in the kettle, the yeast had woken up again and gotten very active due to all the new sugars in the recently added liter of wort.
The brew day itself was uneventful. I tried to mash a bit thicker (lower water to grist ratio), and then added about a gallon of hot water to the mash prior to draining the first runnings from the cooler/mash tun. I added enough water at the end so as to give me roughly half of the total wort I wanted for the boil. I then batch sparged with enough water to hopefully give me the remaining wort needed. I took a pre-boil gravity reading, adjusted the gravity due to it’s high temp at that stage, and found I came out a couple points higher than anticipated. Expected pre-boil gravity of 1.039 and got 1.041. So my mash efficiency was around 74%, compared to my typical 69-70%. It is possible this was due to the thicker mash.
Unfortunately, I completely forgot to take an original gravity (post-boil) reading. If the boil-off rate was accurate, I may have come in a couple points higher than the originally calculate 1.050. The final ABV will depend on what the original gravity was compared to the final gravity reading.
This particular yeast, because it’s less attenuative than many others, tends to not finish as dry as something like a cal ale yeast. If a beer started at 1.050 and was pitched with Cal Ale yeast, it may finish at 1.012, whereas the London ESB yeast would finish the same beer at something like 1.015, leaving more residual sugars, resulting in a slightly sweeter, more malty beer. I adjusted my mash temp to offset this a little. Lower mash temps result in more fermentable sugars, and thus a lower final gravity, higher ABV, and drier beer.after 5 days the krausen had dropped and the yeast was clumping
Due to the yeast starter having been woken up on the brew day with some fresh wort, it was extremely active right when it was pitched into the final 5 gallons of wort in the fermenter. I pitched around 6 PM, and the next morning krausen over an inch thick. Normally it don’t see this kind of activity for a couple days with cal ale yeast. The ferment was fast and furious for the first couple of days. By day 4 is slowed but was still showing steady bubbles in the airlock. After 5 days the majority of the krausen had fallen back into the beer, leaving some rather nasty looking clumps of yeast floating/dangling at the top.
So here it stands. 6 days in the fermenter. Being low gravity and having had a nice, healthy yeast starter, this brew took off fast and likely won’t need much more time before bottling. But, given the holiday, I may just let it sit for 2 full weeks and bottle it next weekend. Feasibly I could bottle on the day after Christmas… of only to send some home with my brother-in-law who will be with us for the holiday.