Most who know me, know how highly I regard my favorite acre of land in Little Rock: Dunbar Community Garden Project. But, for a refresher for non-Little Rock folk, Dunbar is a sui generis institution. One part typical urban community garden, where neighbors regularly volunteer their time to tend to the seemingly endless chores pertaining to the Garden’s upkeep, Dunbar also partially supports itself by selling its produce at Farmer’s Markets and to local restaurants.

 

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Plant Ideas. Grow Minds.

One part animal husbandry farm, complete with (the cutest) goats, chickens, sometimes a turkey or two.

 

One part apiary.

One part children’s education.

As it adjoins Dunbar Elementary School, teachers bring their students out regularly for lessons on life science including gardening, learning where and how our food comes from, and the importance of our pollinators (bees).

In addition to the above, Dunbar has grown hops for nearly a decade. I have been making local wet hopped beers for about four years now, and Vino’s has used the hops many years before that, under Bill Riffle’s tenure.

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Dunbar grown Cascade and Nugget hop varietals

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one of my first wet hopped beers (2012)

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Chris and I after a big hop harvest

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I took this big rhizome home and planted it in my garden

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anyone remember this batch? It was a winner!

In addition to hops, I have used plums in a hefeweizen:

 

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But most recently, I have been all about their pluots.

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A pluot is an apricot / plum hybrid fruit tree grown by crossing both species. The fruit retains characteristics of both fruits: tart, tangy, yet sweet as well. Damian Thompson, who runs operations and education outreach at Dunbar, picked and froze pluots all summer in 2015. I got my hands on approximately 46 lbs.

I wanted to really emphasize the fruit in the brew, so I used a very traditional, low hopped, moderately boozy farmhouse style base ale, fermented with yeast Grant Chandler had previously isolated from Dunbar. We brewed his hoppy wild ale when I worked with Damgoode Pies in the River Market, and I harvested and re-used this yeast.

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I have been keeping it going ever since, brewing everything from low alcohol hibiscus and orange peel saisons (Aria’s Bier) to traditional farmhouse ales (Dunbar Gardenhouse ale) to stronger, well hopped “super saisons” aged in Chardonnay barrels (Katchiri’s Bier), and at the time of writing, this yeast is fermenting a pear cider in collaboration with Stone’s Throw Brewing. As my favorite style of beer, I have found this wild Dunbar yeast contributes every complexity and nuance of any Belgian style farmhouse yeast I have ever worked with. I have been so pleased with it, I have ditched all other farmhouse strains I had kept going!

Back to the pluots. Rather than “infusing” beer with ingredients, I prefer actually fermenting with them. It might seem pedantic, but as a brewer, my job is to guide fermentation. Merely mixing a beer with an ingredient post-fermentation isn’t in keeping with my brewing philosophy. So, I knew I wanted to ferment the pluots. And I wanted the pluot flavor to really come through. To sanitize the pluots (I didn’t want to brew a sour), I took them home and began to stew them down on my stove.

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Dunbar Garden Pluots

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A little hoop while the pluots simmer on the stove

 

A few weeks prior, I brewed a batch of our Dunbar Gardenhouse ale (6.0% ABV), our take on a traditional farmhouse saison, fairly simple malt bill and low hopped.

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After pluots were stewed and cooled, they were pitted and pureed with the pits saved. We then added the pluot puree into a French Chardonnay barrel that was recently swelled with near boiling water.

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We then transferred our Dunbar Gardenhouse beer, unfiltered, into the barrels and unto the puree. Yeast still present in the beer quickly began fermenting the puree in the barrel. Barrel fermentation is an old technique that enhances the barrel wood flavor into the beer. We then simply let the beer condition atop the puree and pits for over 6 months, tasting periodically until we felt the beer contained the appropriate characteristics in balance with eachother: tart, dryness, jammy fruit, oak character, juicy wine aromatics, etc.

Finally, we decided it was ready, and last week we racked a nearly 8-month old farmhouse ale out of its extended rest in barrels. We brought most of it back to a brite tank, where we force carbonated the beer and put into kegs (all unfiltered). We also decided against adding pectinase enzyme. During the stewing process, pectin from the pluot peel is released into solution, and, later into beer. Pectin contributes to a cloudy, hazy beer, and most home brewing or professional brewing books will tell you to always add an enzyme (pectinase) to break down the pectin to preserve clarity. I opted not to do this. In fact I opted not to filter at any stage in this process. I wanted haze. I wanted to preserve every bit of pluot, wild yeast, and barrel flavor. Damian, Chris, and the kids at Dunbar had hand picked every pluot and saved them for me; I wanted this beer to have as much authentic flavor as possible.

I proudly present the final product: Dunbar Garden Wild Pluot Ale!

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I have further hand bottled, and bottle conditioned a few cases of this beer and donated them to Dunbar. These bottles will be available at Garden events for a suggested donation of $15 (tax deductible) to the Garden.

We will release this beer, 8 months in the making, May 21st, the night of Dunbar Garden’s Pig Roast Fundraiser. This promises to be a night to remember, with a sit-down dinner in the Garden prepared by local chefs, Catholic High School jazz band and other local musicians, our pluot beer and our farmhouse pear cider! These are the kind of events that create a sense of place in our community, so let’s celebrate! Tickets available here. We can’t wait to see you there! Come have a beer with us in the Garden!

beer at dunbar

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arkansas, Beer, brewing, community garden, craft beer, farm to table, gardening, Little Rock, local food, microbrew, urban farm, urban farming, urban garden, wild ale

on pluots and patience

Our collaborative beer with Dunbar Community Garden Project: Dunbar Garden Wild Pluot Ale

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arkansas, Beer, craft beer, microbrew

Why should I care about cask conditioned beer?

If you follow Moody Brews on facebook, twitter, or instagram, you may have noticed that (a) I am brewing at Vino’s Brewpub again and (b) we have been referencing “cask conditioning” again a lot more frequently. If you have ever wondered what cask conditioning exactly means, this blog post aims to explain the age old process by documenting my preparation of a few cask kegs in December 2015.  One of the best aspects of making beer at Vino’s (where I started professionally) is they have a nice fleet of fairly unique stainless steel cask kegs. These are typical beer kegs, American sanke, spear, with the exception of one thing: a hole (bung) in the center of the keg. More on that later.

During normal fermentation activities, yeast are metabolizing sugar in the wort to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. We as brewers shepherd this process along during cellaring by controlling initial concentrations of oxygen (for yeast health) and fermentation temperature (which directs yeast metabolic processes away from developing what we consider “off flavors” in the beer). When the yeast finish eating sugars, we then filter and rack (transfer) beer over to a “brite” (conditioning) tank, where we artificially carbonate the beer.

We didn’t always have this nice, steady supply of bulk carbon dioxide delivered to our door, where we can exactly achieve the carbonation desired in beer. That’s where the cask came in. Initially in a wooden barrel, finished, unfiltered, uncarbonated beer was dosed with a touch of priming sugar in the barrel, filled, then sealed. The barrel, or cask, was allowed to sit in ambient temperatures for a few weeks wherein yeast would ferment the added sugar, producing a touch more ethanol and just the right amount (theoretically) of carbon dioxide with no place to go but dissolve in the beer, pressuring the cask to just the right amount of carbonation for a “proper pint.” If you have ever helped bottle home brewed beer, this is exactly the same process.

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Vino’s Brewer Hunter Tacket working with a cask keg

The practice of cask conditioning beer is not an exact science. Different yeast strains have different degrees of attenuation, that is, ferment more of the sugars in the wort than other strains. Some yeast strains, particularly Belgian strains, take a hiatus during fermentation for months, then, almost inexplicably take back up the process. These factors, coupled with the amount of priming sugar used can make the difference between a flat beer and, in essence, a bomb. Once you seal the cask (by the gratifying act of hammering in a wooden bung), you have this product inside the cask, living, developing, maturing that you cannot shepherd any longer. The brewer has to wait, hoping he added the right amount of sugar, hoping he calculated attenuation properly, until, after a few months, he can tap the keg and see how the beer developed. For me, it’s a nod to tradition.

Yet also, this is when I get to experiment. I love working with my local community garden, Dunbar Community Garden Project, and I have used everything from scorpion peppers (in a milk stout), hops (in a cream ale), lavender (in a maibock), and pluots (in a saison)–all grown at Dunbar, about six blocks from the brewery. Using these kegs is incredibly useful because it allows me to experiment with some pretty crazy beer one keg at a time, and there is many times, limited product where I don’t have enough to add to an entire batch of beer. Some of my best beer have come out of these cask kegs, and it is a treat to get to play with them at Vino’s again.

Yesterday, I made a few cask kegs with a black Kölsch-style ale I brewed a few weeks ago. Here’s my process:

Before we fill, we prep. I decided to do a citrus treatment to this black ale that is surprisingly light bodied, only slightly chocolate-y, and an easy drinking 5.1% ABV. In one cask, I planned on adding lime zest and Equinox hops (known for a lemon lime hop aroma); in the other, grapefruit zest and Pacifica hops from New Zealand (orange and grapefruit aroma). I added the zest only because the pith (white portion) of the fruit can lend an unpleasant bitterness I wanted to avoid.

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zesting is messy!

Once zesting is complete, I added a touch of honey to a previously cleaned and sanitized cask keg. The honey provides sugars the yeast present in the unfiltered beer with ferment and carbonate in the keg. Next I affixed a sanitized cloth sack to the inner portion of the bung and filled the sack with respective zest/hop combination.

 

And then, the stress-relieving, deeply gratifying step of hammering the wooden bung into the hole of the keg. No small amount of force is required, as the inner pressure during the keg conditioning process can reach upwards of 26 PSI at room temperature. The bung has to stay in place to keep the seal.

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Finally, we wait. While we go on with our normal brewing activities, we will put these cask kegs on tap a few months down the road, and, like unwrapping a present, see what unfolds! I hope this has helped explain the labor intensive process of cask conditioning. Cheers and hope to see you for a pint of something special at Vino’s!

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