Black House: The Commercially Rationalized, Less Delicious Version

On Apr 3, 2013 - 14 Comments - Beer, Coffee, Start-Up

As promised, I now bring you latest update on our oatmeal coffee stout, Black House.

Being both a coffee & beer geek, I adore coffee stouts, but many of the best are night-enders. As you’re undoubtedly aware, our year round beers will be packaged in four packs of shockingly handsome 16oz. cans, a size and quantity that lends itself to drinking higher volumes of more modest-strength beers.

So our challenge with Black House—and most of our year round beers, really—is to provide a similar experience as the sledgehammers of the coffee stout universe, without the accompanying requirement that one exit the bar in a wheelbarrow.

This task began successfully enough: the very first batch Mike sent me was quite good, and the second was most of the way there.

We ran into trouble with the third, however, when we switched the base malt from Maris Otter to the standard Pale Malt that will one day fill Modern Times’ silo. Different base malts in oft-made beers mean lots of manual labor and significant additional cost, so it’s better avoided if possible. Our goal is to keep things reasonably efficient without sacrificing quality, so we made some adjustments and figured we’d compensated for the difference.

Lo-and-behold, we did not compensate enough. A beer that used to taste and smell like a chocolate covered espresso bean suddenly became a bit bland, with none of the doughy malt flavor that supported the rest of the beers’ flavor profile. A humbling tribute to the power of Maris Otter, it was.

So for our fourth attempt, we tried to reclaim the original flavor profile while maintaining the Pale Malt base by adding additional specialty malts. We essentially took three approaches to imitating Marris Otter: biscuit, crystal, and Caramunich. Alex and I brewed three separate, consecutive batches to test the competing approaches to this problem.

None quite did the job, but biscuit turned out to be the most promising of the lot. The biscuit version was closer to the chocolate covered espresso bean profile than the other two, which featured too much dark fruit and astringency, respectively.

Another key factor in Black House is the coffee addition, which didn’t quite work out in any of the three. We’ve been adding ground coffee in a hop sock for 24 hours right before packaging. I favor this approach because it seems to impart more aroma than other methods, which makes sense considering that it’s essentially the same approach we take to dry hopping.

As you may know, we’ll be roasting the coffee ourselves, and it is here that our learning curve is substantially steeper than it is with beer. I’ve been a homebrewer for 7 years, but I’ve only been roasting coffee for about one year. Something we learned from the subdued coffee profile from all three of these versions of Black House is that one cannot roast coffee beans for beer the same way one does for prepared coffee. It turns out that beer requires a significantly darker roast than most coffee aficionados would desire in a cup.

Light roasts allow the origin and varietal character of the coffee to express itself in the cup, while dark roasts make everything taste like char. Beer—being a mix of sugar, alcohol, water, and a million other things—requires a different approach. Darker roasts seem to translate much better in beer than do lighter roasts, which come across as muted and excessively fruity or acidic. While there’s a time & place for everything, Black House isn’t it for a light roast.

So for the next batch we’re going to increase the portion of Sumatra in our Sumatra/Ethiopia blend and roast a bit darker. Not anything so debased as a French Roast, but a little darker than we’d normally drink.

Alright, thanks for hanging with me through all that. I’d love to hear about your own experiences with oatmeal stouts and coffee additions. We’re brewing two more versions of  Black House tomorrow as part of our continuing effort to recapture the magic, so your feedback would be greatly appreciated.

Next up for the blog: Lomaland saison, which recently went through several more rounds of adjustments. 


Behold! The Modern Times Coffee Roasting Robot

On Feb 6, 2013 - 11 Comments - Beer, Coffee, Start-Up

Here’s a cool thing: as far as I can tell, we’ll be the second brewery in the country to roast our own coffee (the first appears to be Two Brothers in Chicago).

That little fire engine red machine is an Ambex YM-2, an introductory-level roaster than can handle a beastly 5 lbs of green coffee at a time. It’s far from the fanciest roaster you can buy, but I found it on Craigslist and the price was right.

The primary consumer of our house-roasted beans will be Black House, the oatmeal coffee stout that will be part of our year round line-up. At around 20 lbs of coffee per 30bbl batch, it’ll soak up a lot of grounds, but what I’m really excited about are the variations we’ll be able to make. Single origin versions of Black House, coffee versions of our other beers, blends and roasts dialed-in specifically for certain special releases, etc…

There’s also the possibility of selling bags of house-roasted beans, which would allow you to drink Black House coffee alongside Black House beer. Pretty nifty, no?

This whole thing is, of course, an experiment, and we’ll have to see how it goes. I’ve been fascinated by coffee for years now, and home roasting has become a pleasant diversion from the rigors of starting the brewery. But the key, as always, is quality, and the coffee will have to live up to the same unreasonably high standards I have for the beer.