Review of Red Sky at Night

I have enormous respect for the Heavy Seas brewery, which is a local company here in Maryland. (In Baltimore.)

If you’re in the area, definitely take their brewery tour. It’s a lot of fun. It’s a small brewery, so it feels like half-way reasonable step up from homebrewing. IOW, you can still understand what’s going on and relate it back to what you do in your basement.

And after the tour you get to sample their wares and talk with the staff.

So yesterday I was at the local totally awesome liquor store (Corridor in Laurel) and saw a new Heavy Seas brew: Red Sky at Night.

You know the old rhyme. Red at morning, sailors take warning. Red at night, sailor’s delight.

Red Sky at Night is labeled a “Belgian Style Saison Ale.”

My interest in farmhouse ales arose from a local homebrew Christmas party, where one of the brewers was kind enough to bring his farmhouse ale. It was fantastic.

So when I saw an article on farmhouse ales in some beer magazine, I dug right in. Unfortunately, the article left me with the impression that the style is a little too broad to mean much of anything. I wasn’t exactly sure what would qualify something as a “farmhouse ale.”

And the southern Maryland homebrewer’s farmhouse ale was nothing like Red Sky at Night.

So I remain somewhat unsure exactly what “farmhouse ale” means. But this isn’t a review of farmhouse ales.

Red Sky at Night strikes me as a mild introduction to the distinctive flavors of Belgian ales. IOW, if you don’t like the subtle tones that distinguish Red Sky at Night from your typical pale ale, you’re not going to like Belgian ales.

Making the jump from your more traditional ale — an English ale, or an American pale ale — to a full-blown Belgian tripel like Westmalle Trappist or Dulle Teve could leave a person thinking he’s left the world of beer and entered some strange new realm or alternate carbonated beverages.

The flavors are so different. There’s a strong wine flavor to a tripel — not entirely unlike a barley wine — but with fruity overtones and a little more yeastiness.

Red Sky at Night is not a tripel. It’s just a Belgian Ale. So if you were to imagine a pale ale as an introduction to a barley wine, then Red Sky at Night is an introduction to a tripel.

It has subtle hints of the flavors you get in the Dulle Teve — they’re just not as pronounced.

So if you’ve never tried a Belgian ale, definitely try Red Sky at Night. And if you love Belgian Ales, Red Sky at Night will be your go-to session beer.

Westmalle Trappist Ale v. Dulle Teve

Tried these two Tripels. Both were excellent. Both had a rich, foamy head with the sticky, lacy tracks down the side of the glass you would expect. Both were a bit cloudy from the active yeast.

But I have to give the thumb’s up to the Dulle Teve. The flavor was much more what I expected from a Belgian ale. Fruitier. Stronger.

More homebrew tips for extract brewers

Following up on my previous entry, Top Homebrew tips for extract brewers, here are some more tips.

3. Don’t boil your grains. Remove them before 160F.

Many extract recipes call for a small quantity of crushed grain in a “mini-mash.” Adding grain to an extract recipe can help you control the color, flavor, body and head of your beer. So definitely try it!

But some recipes have you just toss the loose (crushed) grains in the pot, bring it to a boil, and remove the grains with a kitchen strainer.

The trouble with that method is that boiling grains brings out tannins that you don’t want in your beer. Once the temperature gets over 160F, you need to get the grains out of the pot. The easiest way to do that is to put the grains in a grain bag, which is sorta like a sock made of cheesecloth. You can get these at your local homebrew supply store for cheap, and they’re definitely worth it!

(You can also use them for your hops, which is a big help when you’re using leaf or plug hops. They tend to make a mess.)

So here’s your basic procedure.

  1. Crack / crush the grains in a mill shortly before you boil,
  2. put the crushed grains in a grain bag and add them to cold water in your brew pot,
  3. slowly bring the temperature up to about 150 and leave it there for 15 minutes,
  4. remove the grain bag and add heat to boil.

4. Remove your brew pot from the heat when you add your extract.

You want to avoid burning your extract on the bottom of the pot because that will change the color and flavor of your beer.

There may be times that you want to caramelize your wort (like for a Scottish ale), but that doesn’t mean you want to burn it. You can caramelize your wort with extended high heat — i.e., a really long boil.

5. Use dried malt extract and specialty grains rather than specialty liquid extracts.

There are a couple reasons why some people say DME might be preferable to LME.

First, DME has a longer shelf life than LME, so you’re more likely to have better quality. (Of course fresh LME is perfectly good stuff! And feel free to ask the store how long the can has been on the shelf.)

Second, if you use DME and adjust to style with adjuncts, you have a little more control over your final product (and you may feel a little more pride in the results?).

For example, if you want to brew a Munich, you could purchase Munich LME, or you could purchase DME and add a pound of Munich malt in a mini-mash.

I’m listing this one because I’ve seen a lot of other people recommend it, but honestly … I’m skeptical of the advantages here. I’ve never had trouble with LME, and when I’m doing an extract batch I don’t mind that somebody else has done the mashing to a certain style.

But there is one situation where DME is superior, and that’s when you want a very pale ale or a pilsner. You can get a lighter colored beer with DME.