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.

Top Homebrew tips for extract brewers

There’s an attitude among some homebrewers that you start off with extract brewing and then, if you’ve got the moxy, you “advance” to all grain brewing.

All-grain brewing definitely has its advantages. The ingredients are less expensive, for one thing, and you can control your final product with a lot more precision. All-grain brewers can modify the chemistry of their mash water, the temperature or stiffness of the mash, or even the style of mash. All these things can help to fine-tune the character of the wort and therefore the flavor of the beer.

But don’t be deceived. There’s a lot you can do with extract. You absolutely do not need to enter the wonderful world of mashing to brew excellent beers!

So recently I’ve been doing some research on “top tips” for extract brewers, and comparing that with my many years of extract batches. Here are the first couple suggestions.

1. Try a full volume boil.

Most extract brewers start off with a relatively small volume of wort — say 2 gallons — and then when the boil is over they pour the wort into a fermentation vessel and add enough cold water to bring the volume up to five and a half gallons. (The extra half gallon allows for any loss when you transfer to secondary, and/or into your bottling bucket.)

There are two big advantages to that method.

  • You don’t need to buy a huge pot or a fancy burner, and
  • Adding the cold water helps cool the wort after the boil.

But there are also advantages to a full-volume boil.

  • You get better hop utilization. Two ounces of hops boiled in two gallons of wort will not produce as much bitterness, flavor or aroma as the very same two ounces of hops boiled in five gallons of wort.
  • By boiling all the water, you may avoid possible sources of contamination (in the unlikely event your tap water is infected), and you may drive off unwanted chlorination.

If you have the equipment, give a full-volume boil a try. However, note that your kitchen stove might not have the gumption to give you a good rolling boil with a five-gallon batch. Especially if you have an electric stove. Also, if you do a full-volume boil you really need to do #2 as well.

2. Use a wort chilller.

Rapidly cooling the wort after the boil can dramatically improve your beer.

  • The “cold break” you get with rapid cooling can precipitate some unwanted gunk,
  • The sooner you cool the wort the less chance you have for hot-side aeration, and
  • You lessen the chance of bacterial contamination when you cool the wort quickly.

If you can’t use a wort chiller, immerse your fermenter in a bath of cold water (or even snow, in season). The sooner you chill the wort to fermenting temperatures, the better.

Homebrew Recipe Confusion — what’s the diff between these recipes?

I love homebrew recipe books. But it’s not always because of the recipes.

When you read a bunch of recipes it’s like a casual reminder of all those different styles of beer that haven’t been “top of mind” recently. (“Oh yeah, I haven’t brewed a bock in a while.”)

And I’m always impressed by the incredible variety of flavors and styles you can get from four simple ingredients — malt, hops, water and yeast.

Another reason I love recipe books is that writers are often at their best when they’re straining for just the right adjective to explain this particular pale ale, or what the chocolate malt adds to this other porter recipe.

I have a friend who — before he puts a new style of beer to his lips — asks what he should be looking for. That’s a good idea. The more you know about the varieties of experience you can enjoy from different styles of beer, the more you’ll appreciate the beer you drink.

That’s what you need to focus on in a book of recipes, because that will give context to the slight variations in the ingredients.

At first, the recipes can look awfully similar, because the variations can be rather small. You might think, “Isn’t this one pretty much the same as the last five I’ve read?”

+ 6.6 pounds LME
+ a pound of some specialty malt
+ bittering hops
+ flavoring hops
+ aroma hops
+ yeast

If you look at it that way … yeah. That’s about the shape of it. They’ll all about the same.

And if you went into a homebrew store with that as your shopping list, you really could make a decent beer.

But … what kind of a beer would it be? It could be almost anything, depending on what kind of LME you bought, what the specialty grain is, what hops you used (and when you used them), and what yeast you chose.

That’s where all the fun comes in. Small changes in the recipe make a world of difference in the finished product.

I recently had a side-by-side comparison of two homebrewed beers that were identical — except for the yeast. And I mean as identical as they could be. They were from the very same 10-gallon batch, split into two 5 gallon batches.

The different yeasts gave a completely different character to the two beers. Some yeasts will dry out your beer, while some will leave it more malty. Some will enhance the hop bitterness. Some will emphasize aromas. It’s actually rather amazing how much difference the yeast can make.

And that’s just one ingredient. What about the malt?

Advanced brewers can fine-tune their beers in the mash tun. For example, a stiffer mash at a higher temperature will make a less fermentable wort, which will make a beer with more body and more malt flavor. And an infusion mash will make a different beer than a decoction mash.

Extract brewers need to approach this a little differently. They need to pick the right brand of extract, since somebody else has already done the mashing. Laaglander and John Bull are said to be less fermentable (resulting in more body and maltiness), while Muntons and Alexanders are more fermentable.

If you add a specialty malt to your recipe, that can be a big game changer as well. A pound of rye is going to add an entirely different flavor to your beer than a pound of Munich malt. (Next time you’re at the homebrew store, nibble a few grains of a few different malts to see how different they taste.)

In short, making a good beer is about having good ingredients and following correct procedures. You could walk into the homebrew shop and somewhat randomly pick your ingredients and, if you follow best practices, make a good quality beer. Of some sort.

Making a particular style of beer is about paying attention to the details.

You need to pick your malt, hops, yeast and — if you’re an advanced homebrewer — even your water, to match the style you want to achieve.

So the next time you read that homebrew recipe, pay attention to the details, because that’s what’s going to make the difference when you’re aiming for a particular flavor or style.