Butternut miss this one!

Gather close, dear reader, and let me tell you a tale of our latest saga: the makings of our first ever production batch of Lagerfeuer, a smoked butternut squash rauchbier. Though we brewed this beer in September of this year, the story really starts back in September 2013.

Construction hadn’t even begun on Aeronaut Brewing Co., but we were hard at work planning recipes.  The whole team was sitting in a coffee shop, griping about how we were so overwhelmed by all of the pumpkin beers that had proliferated in recent years. We all wanted a nice autumn beer, and loved the concept of a pumpkin beer, but thought that pumpkins often took a backseat to their associated spices, like nutmeg and clove–pumpkin beers weren’t even pumpkin beers anymore, with a few notable exceptions. We decided to create our own answer to those beers by making a butternut squash beer. Yes, a beer featuring a different winter squash. This one was rich with fall flavors, possibly tastier than pumpkin, colored a lovely pink-beige, bearing deep orange flesh and distinctively shaped. Interestingly, the butternut squash we all love is actually a variety that was developed right nearby in Waltham, so it’s named the Waltham butternut. We chose to smoke the squash over hardwood and then use the smoked squash in the mash of our beer, which would be an Oktoberfest-style lager, reminiscent of a German rauchbier.

For our first prototype batch, we all prepped the butternut squash and then smoked the squash slices in brewer Mark’s backyard. They came out so aromatic and tasty, it was difficult to save them for the beer and not just eat them right away.

Applewood-smoked squash!

Applewood-smoked squash!

Steadfast, like the most devout of ascetics, we denied ourselves those delicious morsels so that we could keep a high proportion of them for the mash. The starches in the squash added to the gravity, the smoke permeated the brew, and the rich color and flavor of the squash was left behind as we separated the solids from the liquid. The beer lagered for a few weeks and in the end, was delightful beyond our wildest dreams. We added this one to the list of keepers.

This year, the autumn came in like the proverbial lamb. The butternut squash came into season and we were able to source them through Something GUD, a member of the Aeronaut Foods Hub. These squash were truly local, coming from Four Town Farm in Seekonk, MA. Unlike our prototype batch, this one required some serious logistics. To keep up the intense squash flavor we got in our first batch, we calculated that we’d need 750 pounds of squash. Yes. Here’s what that looks like:

 

Much squash

Much squash

For a few weeks, those butternuts became a fixture in our taproom–a much loved decoration, and a friend. Of course, the inexorable advancement of time took its toll on those unsuspecting squash (though their removal from the ground probably gave them an inkling). Yes, it was time to peel and seed the squash. A batch this size would require some serious elbow grease. We called in reinforcements and we were answered by a crew of 20 or so loyal volunteers.

Peeling and prepping

Peeling and prepping

A beehive of activity!

A beehive of activity!

They made short work of those squash. Everything was fully prepped in under 2 hours. Bins were piled high and ready to go. But go where? We couldn’t easily smoke that much squash in Mark’s backyard this time. Fortunately for us, our friends at Blue Ribbon BBQ let us use their giant smokers. Yep, we trucked the squash slices over there and popped them in the smokers for a much needed smoke bath. It was a site to behold.

Tray of squash, ready to go.

Tray of squash, ready to go.

Load 'em up

Load ‘em up

So smokey

So smoky

After a thorough smoking, the squash were pureed and taken back to Aeronaut. The pureeing was quite an operation also. Hundreds of pounds of squash require some heavy duty gear. Thanks again to Blue Ribbon for helping with that.

Gallons of squash puree

Gallons of squash puree

Finally, it was time to brew. The squash puree was added to the mash, and the brew went forward. The squash did its job and aside from some snags with water flow, the brew was completed successfully. Little did we know that the next morning, tragedy would strike.

Eight thirty AM. The brew team is milling about, getting some cellaring done and the soon-to-be Lagerfeuer is bubbling away feverishly. Suddenly, we hear this loud clang from across the room, and we turn around to see a horrific sight: the fermenter door latch just snapped and the door slumped open. Beer was pouring out of the tank at a fast clip and there was nothing we could do about it but stand and watch. And take pictures.

We apologize for the graphic nature of this image.

We apologize for the graphic nature of this image.

The beer looked as lovely as ever, flowing to its demise. Unfortunately, one of our most difficult and labor-intensive beers to create fell victim to a used fermenter with a poorly constructed door. The good news was that the door was high enough that we managed to hold on to about half of the batch. So, we patched up the door and let it finish fermenting after a quick CO2 purge. Meanwhile, we got to eat tons of roasted squash seeds (which are waaaay better than pumpkin seeds).

Squash seeds, courtesy of Mark

Squash seeds, courtesy of Mark

A nice thorough lagering followed, and now, the beer is ready for drinking. We named it Lagerfeuer because aside from this beer being a lager, its smoky taste is reminiscent of a campfire, which is what “Lagerfeuer” means in German. This time round the taste is deliciously smoky and eminently squashy. We’ve only got half as much as we planned for, so don’t delay in getting here to try it. Prost!

 

-Ronn

Sumac Attack

O brave new world that has such berries in it! Our beer experimentation has taken us to strange new places. This weekend, we are introducing our sumac beer, which we’ve named “Field Day” for reasons that should become apparent. The concept for sumac beer came about around a year ago, back when we were still prototyping beers in the backyard, sans brewery. The summer was ending, and we were looking for seasonal fruits to add to our beers. During our long drives through central and western Mass., we’d pass endless rows of sumac plants, with their drupes of berries pointing skyward like so many fingers making a suggestive “come hither” motion as they swayed in the traffic-induced breeze. In late August, the berries color the roadside and typically remain untouched by human or animal through the winter. This was not always the case. As I learned from Euell Gibbons years earlier, the American Indians used sumac berries to make a tart drink akin to lemonade. What better way to welcome the end of summer than to incorporate this widely available MA-native plant? We found a roadside cache of the berries and gathered up a bushel or so. Then, we summoned some good friends to help us pick the berries from the stems.

Prepping sumac

Prepping sumac

Of course, sumac berries aren’t as gentle on the hands as the supple strawberry, or the delicate currant. No, they are fuzzy and a bit scratchy. It was no easy task to get the berries prepped, but eventually we stuck it out and found ourselves with the makings of a sumac extract, which we then incorporated into two different styles of beer–American wheat, and a light pale ale.

Making sumac extract.

Making sumac extract.

Sumac beer experiments.

Sumac beer experiments.

Both turned out excellent, showcasing the pink color of the sumac, and its gentle fruity acidity, arising from the healthy dose of malic acid, found in the fuzz of the sumac berries. We resolved to repeat the process at our brewery, once it was established.


Summer 2014. Aeronaut Brewing Company is alive and kicking. We found ourselves in the midst of a busy first season at Aeronaut. While doing our best to keep beer in stock, we also kept an eye toward new and seasonal beers. August sauntered in and thoughts of the sumac beer crept back into our forebrains. This time, how much would we need to make a brewery-sized quantity of sumac beer? How would we get it, and how would we ensure the quality of a plant that grows wild? We decided to source the sumac from a farm, rather than the roadside this time. Although sumac isn’t widely cultivated, the plants have a penchant for growing at the edges of fields, where sunlight is plentiful. We asked our friends at Four Star Farms, who had recently supplied us with fresh hops for our Northfield IPA. Not only did they confirm that their fields were surrounded by sumac plants, the told us they’d be happy to have us harvest whatever we’d like! And they could confirm that the plants were untouched and unsprayed. Great news. Now…how to harvest the right quantity?

We did some quick calculations and realized we’d need a rather large bounty of the berries. Accordingly, we assembled a small team of excited volunteers to accompany us to the farm out in Northfield. Together, we trucked westward on a Monday morning and spent the day snipping berry clusters and collecting them in the bed of our pickup truck.

Getting the good stuff

Getting the good stuff

Once we had it all collected, we headed back to Aeronaut. That evening, we called in reinforcements. Around a dozen of us spent the evening hours picking apart the berries and getting them ready for their debut. Thanks, team!

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Good ol' fashioned sumac-pickin' bee

Good ol’ fashioned sumac-pickin’ bee

Celebrating a job well done

Celebrating a job well done

Finally, it was brew day. We’d decided to go with a pale ale base. To get the sumac ready, we created a parallel mini-mash for the sumac extraction, while the grain extraction proceeded as normal.

Sumac mash

Sumac mash

After we were satisfied that the sumac tea was ready, and the pH was low enough, we let the sumac meet the beer. The bright red liquid flowed out of the pot, leaving behind the flavorless berry husks. Adding enough of it would lend a pinkish hue to the unfermented wort.

Adding the sumac extract

Adding the sumac extract

After that, we continued the brew as normal. We’d later find challenges involving extra haze contributed by the sumac proteins, but we persevered, and today, we bring you the product of our efforts. We think the beer is wonderfully refreshing, sour, bitter and citrusy. We can’t help but be reminded of grapefruit juice when we drink it. May “fair thought and happy hours attend you” as you imbibe.

Co-hoperation

Making a fresh-hopped beer is in many ways like performing an organ transplant (except lower stakes). It’s all about timing and coordination. The whole object is to get the hops harvested and into a beer in as short a time as possible, while handling them ever so gently. We decided to make an IPA featuring Centennial hops freshly harvested from nearby Four Star Farms.

The hops are rolling in!

The hops are rolling in!

Four Star awesomely invited us, along with a bunch of local brewers, to check out the farm and observe the hop harvest. They’ve got this crazy wolf harvester machine that pulls the cones off of the bines ever so gently.

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Most IPAs are made with dried, sometimes pelletized hops. The opportunity to use freshly picked, moist hop flowers comes but once a year, so we decided to have 30 pounds of hops sent to us directly after harvesting. The folks at Four Star were awesome about getting the hops to us on time. We had to choose a day to brew the beer so that a fermentation tank was available, our other ingredients could be purchased ahead of time, and most importantly, so that the hop harvest would occur then.

Liz, packing up the hops.

Liz, packing up the hops.

So, while our hops were being packaged and sent super-express mail, we were getting ready to begin our brew. The next morning, the grain was prepped and the mash awaited the arrival of hops. Fortunately, around 7:20am, the hops arrived in two mesh sacks.

Hop bags

 

We used the hops in the mash to add a fresh hop aroma to the beer. Later, the remaining fresh hops were placed in a vessel to be used as a hopback. We ran the freshly brewed wort through this hopback to extract more hoppy, fresh and ‘green’ flavors.

Hopback

Total time from harvest to brew: 22 hours. Next year we’ll try to shave it down to 21. Three weeks later, the beer is ready to drink! Taste the Massachusetts-grown freshness!

 

Even more hops!

Myrcene’s in the air

It’s that time of year! Hops are getting heavy on the bine and need to be cut loose. Hops are widely known to be one of the four classic beer ingredients (along with yeast, barley malt and water), but are still probably the most mysterious to many beer drinkers. I believe the reason is that hops do not typically appear in other everyday items (except maybe my all-natural deodorant). In contrast, everyone deals with water, most people have used yeast for bread, and many have probably eaten barley as a whole grain. Hops are kind of odd, but also wonderful. Hops give beer its aroma, bitterness, and they add interesting flavors. They also provide antimicrobial properties that help beer stay fresh.

Hops grow on these climbing vine-like plants called “bines” (unlike vines they don’t have tendrils to latch on, but wrap around a support). Each plant flowers in the late summer, and it is these flowers usually called hop “cones” that we harvest and use in beer. As flowers, it should be no surprise that they are very aromatic. The explosion of American IPAs and session IPAs in the past decade or so has certainly led to wider appreciation of hops and all that they add to beer.

This year, we are eagerly awaiting some freshly harvested hops from local farms as well as an assortment of wonderful varieties from around the world. As those of you who went to our demo at the American Craft Beer Fest will attest to, hop flavor and aroma not only varies by type, but also by where they are grown.

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Showcasing hop terroir in cask ales at ACBF.

So, since there are only a few weeks per year when the hops are ripe for the picking (and not yet picked), I decided to head out to our local New England hop farms to roam through the fields and get up close with these important plants. My first stop of the year was Four Star farms in Northfield, MA. When I arrived, knowing that this was a relatively new operation, I was quite stunned and impressed to find acre upon acre of towering hop bines. It’s quite a site to see and it’s also really cool to walk among the rows of hops.

The hops fields at Four Star. Sunset.

The hop fields at Four Star.

Rows of hops.

Rows of hops at Four Star.

Unlike most crops, hops are extremely tall and require a fair bit of infrastructure to maintain (think telephone poles with aircraft cable). Because the full-grown plants can weigh 20 pounds each, the cables and poles that hold up the bines have to be pretty heavy-duty.

Right before harvest, you can pluck the hop cones from the plant and get a whiff of the fresh aroma. This year, the cones were looking really nice and quite dense. In the New England area, it is said that  hop plants need to be in the ground for three years before they build a dense enough root system to support a substantial crop.

Cones and stems.

Cones and stems.

A freshly picked centennial cone. Big!

A freshly picked centennial cone. Big!

Many of the hops at Four Star are past the 3-year mark and it shows. Of course, there are always new ones being planted. As Liz from Four Star gave us a tour of the crop rows and showed us around, we marveled at the sites and contemplated how much effort it was to plant the hops, and also how much more work it would be to harvest them.

Liz regales us with stories of hops gone by.

Liz answers our questions and regales us with stories of hops gone by.

As we made our way back to the car, Liz invited us to check out the spelt harvest–one of the perks of getting to know your local hop farmers! I got to ride on the combine and watch as acres of spelt were gathered. Our Saison of the Western Ghats bears this ancient grain in its grist, so it was exciting to think that some of those spelt grains could make their way into one of our next batches.

Checking out the combine!

Checking out the combine!

Collecting spelt.

Collecting spelt.

After a fun journey through the spelt fields, we made our way across the farm and back home.

The next trip would be to the Hop Yard in Maine. After Sierra Nevada’s Beer Camp, I made a trip up to this newly established farm not far from Portland. They were having a morning kegs and eggs event right in the hop yard! I got to meet the farmers, check out the plants in their second year and taste some excellent local beer. Peter gave me a walk-through of the hop plants as I enjoyed my eggwich. I think that the steadily increasing hop growth in the New England area will benefit farmers and brewers alike, since they can share not only beer and ingredients, but resources and knowledge about hops. The guys at the Hop Yard have been great about keeping us in the loop with all kinds of info about harvesting and packaging of hops.

Me and Peter at the Hop Yard.

Peter and me at the Hop Yard.

Even more hops!

Even more hops at Hop Yard!

Hop farms like Four Star and the Hop Yard are pioneering a new era in East Coast hops. We are very excited to be working with them and learning about what makes local hops unique as well as how to best use them. It’s easy to see that every year, our locally grown hops get even better. Hop growing used to be centered around New York State back in the 1800′s and early 1900′s. Since then, much of it has moved out west. Now, hops are returning to the region and we are happy to be able to enjoy and experiment with locally grown varieties.

This week, we are looking forward to making our first wet-hopped beer (which uses hops that are plump and freshly picked). This is the only time of the year when this is possible! Stay tuned to hear about the short journey from the hop plant to the tap.

-Ronn

Building Aeronaut: Our mobile beer dispenser

As many new breweries are wont to do, we at Aeronaut have taken a page from the homebrewing world and incorporated it into our brewery. I’m talking about a movable draft fridge that had its beginnings as a sort of kegerator (or ‘keezer’ as they are sometimes called).

Back when we were prototyping around 12 recipes per month, we started to need lots of space for storage and dispense of those homebrews. This led to us building a cool fridge that would double as a bar. It was a modest amount of woodworking ,  but it came out really nice.

Frame for the beer fridge

Frame for the beer fridge

We started out with four taps, but that quickly increased to eight. The interior needed lots of organization, since we had eight draft lines, a CO2 tank and up to 12 gas lines installed.  The beer was flowing smoothly and it was excellent to have this all figured out.

Taps installed and flowing!

Taps installed and flowing!

The inner workings

The inner workings

Of course, maintaining 8 tap lines is no simple task, and aside from keeping the keg inventory moving, we needed to have a system in place for keeping the lines clean. That led to our home-grown line cleaning system! We used a nice centrifugal pump and split it up over the draft lines so that we could flush and clean four lines at a time (see our instructional post on draft line cleaning for more info).

Now that we are building out our tasting room, we are going to have a more permanent beer faucet setup. But what is to come of our loyal draft fridge? We are keeping it in the brewery and will take advantage of its size and mobility so that we can dispense beers for growler fills away from the main tasting bar. Also, as the Aeronaut Foods Hub fills out, we will often find reasons to tote the fridge 100 feet to the other side of the space so beer can flow right in the market.

Bringing the beer to the people!

Bringing the beer to the people!

The only thing missing now is a name for our good old draft fridge. We’re open to suggestions!

 

Make your own beer line cleaner!

As a brewery with a taproom, we have lots of draft lines and they need to stay clean for the beer to taste right. We have spent some time putting together a simple line cleaning system and we figured we’d share our efforts for the homebrewers among you who are wishing to maintain a similar level of quality on draft lines.

The basic idea here is to have caustic line cleaning solutions running through the draft lines continuously for 15 minutes or so,  in order to clean out any sticky stuff in the tubing or faucets. Then, a quick sanitary rinse leaves the lines good to go! To avoid having to clean each line separately (and take up several hours), we start with a decent centrifugal pump and use that to push the solutions through the lines.

The pump

The pump

For hardware, you’ll want to have a way to connect the pump outlet to a line splitter for as many draft lines as you’d like to hit (we chose 4).

Line splitter configuration

Line splitter configuration

Each line can then be attached to the end of the tubing you are using to carry beer from the kegs to the faucets. You’ll also need a tray to collect the liquid from the faucets, and return it back to your bucket of line cleaner (we poked a hole in ours so it drains into the bucket).

The setup

The setup

Once you’ve got this all in place, check that the pump flows through your lines without leaking (use water). The pump should be primed with water so it doesn’t cavitate, then pull into the pump from a bucket, run through all four lines (faucets open), and drain back into the bucket  in a loop. If this is getting stressful and complicated, relax and have a homebrew (props to Charlie Papazian)!

Getting the lines attached

Getting the lines attached

It’s a good idea to flush with hot water first, then move on to caustic. After a five minute flush, switch to a bucket of caustic solution and run for 15 minutes to clean the lines. I’d recommend using gloves and safety goggles for this, as these line cleaners can be dangerous.

Caustic is flowing

Water is flowing!

While this is happening, it’s a good idea to soak all of your fittings (e.g. keg connectors and accessories in contact with beer) in a cleaner such as PBW. For the line cleaner, we use BLC, which works very well.  Everything should be rinsed with water afterward. We do two thorough flushes with water for the lines and fittings before using them. A five minute run per water flush should do. Once you’re done, just reassemble and enjoy your clean, sparkling beer!