Gnomen von Zürich Starkbier

ZurichLagerWFor all the perception that “Zürich Lager” is something special to experience, it seems that most reviews of Swiss beer, at least those that refer to pale lager, report finding nothing special. From Lowenbrau Zürich, Quollfrisch Hell, Feldschlösschen, Calanda, Schützengarten, to probably a dozen more, the reviews go from “Swiss Bud Lite” to “nothing spectacular.”

I’ve only been to Switzerland once, and that was to Geneva, which, while beautiful, has a pretty nondescript beer scene. So what’s the deal with the legendary Zürich lager? Apparantly it all comes down to Hürlimann Samichlaus, a rare Christmas beer whose Swiss manufacture ceased in 1996. The gnomes of Zürich managed to cram an entire six-pack of flavor into a 335ml bottle, and at 14% ABV, there are still some cellared examples being consumed now and again to rave reviews. In 2000 the brand was revived by Austrian brewer Schloss Eggenberg.

Albert Hürlimann was a recognized expert in the scientific development of yeast, and his extremely alcohol-tolerant strain survives as White Labs WLP885. Equipped with a vial of this venerable strain, what is one to do who does not have the patience to wait three years for a lager to mature?

In this example, a brew of 16.5 degrees Plato starting gravity will turn out to be very drinkable in less than six months, finishing at 3 Plato with an ABV of about 7.2%. The beer starts with a hefty grain bill of lager malt, to which the brewer adds Munich, Vienna, Melanoidin and CaraPils specialty malts.

The Zürich lager yeast throws off a lot of phenolic flavor which comes through strongly in this beer, giving it a quality almost like a Belgian brew. It is a long, slow fermenter, and four to five months in the secondary is about the minimum necessary to bring the gravity down to a manageable level.

It is a very flavorful and full-bodied beer, and will improve with age for quite some time. I plan to keep a bottle at least another six months to see how it develops.

Regis X Gruit Ale

The first thing to understand is that gruit is not beer as you know it. It might be “beor” but to expect a beverage that tastes like modern beer is to be surprised when first tasting gruit ale.

From Medieval times up until the 1600s “ale” referred to a fermented beverage that used herbs other than hops for flavoring and preservative properties. The term “ale” itself had connotations in those days of sorcery, magic, intoxication. “Beer” was a drink that came from the Low Countries, where the brewers used the flowers of the hop vine to flavor and preserve their malt liquors.

Gruit refers most specifically to a mixture of herbs that were traditionally used to make ale. And as “ale” implies, these herbs were likely chosen first for their inebriating properties. Today, inebriation is usually thought of as “drunk” or “intoxicated.” And while a traditional gruit ale was no doubt brewed to be strongly alcoholic, the herbs infused into the beverage were strongly psychotropic. The number of plants with psychoactive properties runs to the hundreds, so it is no surprise that over time, experimentation came up with some interesting combinations.

All this is to say treat gruit ale with respect. Drink enough and you will get drunk. But you will also get something else–exactly what that is, is hard to say. It’s not “stoned.” It’s not “wasted.” It’s “inebriated.”

The earliest surviving recipes for gruit call for marsh rosemary, sweet gale and yarrow as herbal ingredients. They are used in small quantities compared to the amount of hop flowers typically used in a batch of beer.

The first batch of gruit ale I brewed followed the basic recipe uncovered by the members of The Durden Park Beer Circle in England. The recipe dates from around 1300 AD and makes an ale of perhaps eight percent alcohol or so. It calls for pale and Carapils malts, as an acceptable substitute for the kind of malted barley that was used in Medieval times–a wood-fire-cured product that was probably an amber or even brown color.

This ale was nice, but a bit uninteresting to my palate. I decided that I would do a batch that was quite a bit darker and richer, taking advantage of the caramel and dark malts now available. These were introduced in the case of dark malts after the invention of the drum roaster in 1817, and with the process for producing caramel malts around 1850. I started with 2 kilos of pale malt, 400 grams of crystal malt and 150 grams of Carapils for a 12 liter batch. To these I added Munich malt, bicuit malt and Special B; chocolate malt and roasted barley.

I also took some time to research the many other herbs used for ale-making, and settled on a combination of the previously mentioned three, plus mugwort and heather. One-third of the dose went into the mash, another third into the boil. The final third went into the primary fermenter in a hop sack. I pitched White Labs WLP028 Edinburgh yeast for it’s great performance in malty, strong, complex ales.

The early recipes probably used Ledum Palustre as the “Marsh Rosemary” ingredient–an herb hard to come by. In fact, in ancient times it was possible to pay your taxes with marsh rosemary. For the initial brewing of this batch I substituted the closely-related “Labrador Tea” leaf. I also added a good dose of sweet Sedona juniper berries.

After five days brewing I removed a half-liter of the ale, heated it, and steeped 9 grams of heather flowers in it for 20 hours, strained it and returned it to the fermenter. In a bit of luck, my herb supplier came upon a source of genuine marsh rosemary, and I dry hopped the brew in the secondary fermenter with 10 grams of this.

It’s hard to imagine that gruit ales were originally carbonated, although the term “head,” referring to the foam on top of a glass of beer, is first found in use around 1540. Nonetheless, I chose to carbonate this batch, and put it up in 750 ml swing-top bottles.

The Regis X Gruit Ale is now two years old. It pours a dark brown with a light tan head. The aroma is indescribable for me, as I’ve never encountered anything similar. Herbal of course, piney, woody, perhaps even tangy. It has a moderately heavy body. The flavor is reminiscent of grapefruit, somewhat sour in a citrus way–definitely not lactic or acetic. The finish is quite bitter.

Commoners” that have tasted Regis X have found it interesting and compelling. It is fully a gruit, not beer as we know it. It’s important to gauge consumption carefully. Though it is very tasty, the herbs are definitely psychotropic. The best way to describe the sensation is “Whoa!” Don’t drink more than a pint of it before you know where you’re going.

Scott likes it, and so does his wife Jody. Thanks for the bombers Scott, and bring my swing top back!

Cool Rooster Malt Liquor

CoolRooster234 OK, I drank all the Cool Rooster. That’s why there’s no picture of it. But the brown bag is also a tribute to sultry summer nights sitting on the stoop in front of a Brownstone, in a city somewhere from Boston to St. Louis to Atlanta. I never did that, but I hope I can relate.

A few years ago I was in a Washington DC liquor store, and picked up a can of Coqui 900 malt liquor. I admit, I bought it for the name. It turned out to be an acceptable brew, not worthy of the bad reputation American malt liquor usually carries. This got me to thinking, “What if they brewed malt liquor to taste great, not as a cheap drunk?” I was on a quest.

I looked over my collection of beer cans and sought further inspiration: Magnum Malt Liquor; Golden Hawk Classic; Country Club. Finally, I turned to one of my favorite Saturday Night Live skits: Cold Cock Malt Liquor, featuring Tim Meadows as the urbane host of a serious party. Ellen Cleghorn tells him “You one malt liquor picker!” Chris Rock gets socked in the chin by the label art and declares “Proper!” I wanted to make a proper malt liquor.

The literature says American malt liquors are distinguished by malty sweetness, with medium body and light bitterness. They should be pale gold in color, with a modest hop flavor and a little “skunky” nose. Like many light American beers, malt liquor has a substantial amount of corn sugar, rice solids, or flaked corn; in this case they’re used to bring the ABV up to about 8 percent.

Cool Rooster starts with 750 grams of pale barley malt, together with 450 grams of flaked corn, 250 grams each of honey (aromatic) malt and 10L crystal malt, 100 grams of Cara-Pils, and 15 grams of black malt. These are mashed with the single-step infusion method. Then 2.7 kilos of Munton dry malt extract, 410 grams of corn sugar, and 450 grams of rice solids are added. The boil is bittered with 20 grams of Chinook hops, flavored with 15 grams of Liberty, and 15 grams of Centennial hops. The boiled wort is topped up with filtered water to make a batch of 23 liters volume. Starting gravity is 17.5 Plato.

For this brew I pitched Safale US-05 . This is an American ale yeast with a high tolerance for alcohol, producing a very clear beer with a nice crisp balance, and a creamy head. The beer fermented out to 2.75 Plato, indicating a finished ABV of 8.4 percent. Six months aging really smoothes it out.

Cool Rooster is a strong gold color, with a white firm head. It has a malty nose, with a slight hop aroma. Its smooth flavor does not feature much of the corn addition, finishing fairly dry with a tasty bitter touch. A nice example of real American Malt Liquor’s style, Cool Rooster packs a punch–Proper!