Filled with hope, a dash or two of quiet pride, and a good bit of trepidation, CFL and I took two of our homebrews — the Angeles Porter and our just-debuted Up the Elwha ESB — to yesterday’s monthly meeting of our local homebrew club.
We were feeling semi-confident of our porter, as several of our friends have tasted it and pronounced it good, yet we were nervous about what our fellow brewers might have to say about it. We were on shakier ground with the ESB. When we opened the first bottles Saturday evening, I was pleased but CFL was unsure and a tad uneasy. I have many fond memories of drinking “bitter” during my year as a university student in Scotland, but it’s not a style that CFL knows well and I didn’t have a bottle of Bass Ale handy for an easy comparison tasting.
We’ve been to enough brewclub meetings now to know how these things work. Most everyone brings a couple of bottles of at least one homebrew to share with the group. Everyone gets a few ounces of beer in a plastic cup. For the first couple of rounds, each beer gets presented in an orderly fashion, we’re all attentive, and we try to provide some feedback to the brewer. After the third or fourth round everything descends into chaos with multiple bottles on the counter and everyone talking at once.
CFL and I were bringing a relatively “light” beer as homebrews go. An ESB (Extra Special Bitter) is supposed to be golden to copper with low to medium bitterness/hoppiness and a moderate level of alcohol — ours is 5.5%. Here in the Pacific Northwest, which is one of the great hop-growing regions of the world, everyone wants to brew an IPA (India Pale Ale). An IPA is basically a higher-alcohol ESB with as many hops as the brewer can force into the brew kettle — it’s a “bitter” ale on steroids. A more traditional English-style ale like our ESB can seem mild and bland by comparison. Knowing that, we hoped to be early in line so that people could actually TASTE our beer instead of losing it in the aftermath of something with a more robust flavor.
Well, that didn’t happen.
The meeting began with a mini-lecture on porters, complete with several demonstration rounds. We looked at each other, shrugged, and added our porter to the line-up on the counter.
Many porters (including those in the demonstration rounds) have heavy roasted or smoky flavors; ours is a bit on the sweeter side but still within the style guidelines. So we weren’t surprised when several people told us ours was a bit too sweet… but then we began to get some very positive comments, along with constructive suggestions for making it “even better,” from some of the more experienced brewers. A few people even asked for a second pour — a good sign that we’re on the right track!
With our confidence bolstered just a bit, we cautiously brought out the ESB. We initially offered it only to those few who’d been so helpful with their feedback on the porter. We were immediately rewarded with our highest praise yet: “This is a good example of the style, and there are no off flavors at all. You did a good job!” That gave us the courage to pass the bottle on to others. Given everything else that was being tasted at that moment, we weren’t surprised when we got a few raised eyebrows. By then we knew that we’d achieved what we’d set out to do with this beer.
As a further quality control check, we picked up a couple bottles of Bass Ale after the meeting and treated each other to a blind, eyes-closed tasting yesterday evening. I correctly distinguished our ESB from the archetype of the style, but CFL got it wrong. The two beers are that close in aroma, taste, and mouthfeel. With eyes opened, ours is cloudier visually because it is bottle-conditioned with residual yeast still in the bottle, but the color is almost identical.
We did well, and we’re pleased.
It’s a good thing we’re pleased with this batch (#3) because brew day for batch 6 did not go as planned on Saturday. We were making another porter… I had researched and tweaked ingredients to create a recipe that I thought would be an improvement on our first porter. But something happened, and the wort that went into the fermenter was a medium brown, several shades too light to be a porter. The worst part is I have no idea what went wrong. We figure we’ll ferment it, bottle it, and age it as planned — and then figure out what to call it… assuming it’s drinkable at all. I guess we are all allowed a bad batch now and then.
It’s bubbling away happily in the carboy right now, so I guess the yeast don’t care what color it is! And as long as they’re busily and contentedly creating alcohol, who am I to complain about the details?