Another 3:30 AM alarm, another large coffee made, another moment of thought “why didn’t I pack more the night before?” Where’s my wallet? I can never find my wallet. And also, don’t forget the tea!
Wiped the snow off the car, a rarity this time of year in Little Rock, and on the cold road by 4. I have become somewhat of an audio connoisseur for these road trips. This American Life, Planet Money, and the latest This American Life spinoff Serial has become my latest obsession for the road (No, Adnon didn’t do it, something is still fishy with Jay, but there’s something else to the story, in my opinion).
Strange looks from the gas station attendants (I wore my brewer’s boots and shorts in sub freezing weather) who nonetheless filled my bad coffee and worse egg burrito order. Still figuring out the best stops on I40 — nights at Alma gas stations are a no go by the way.
To Apple Blossom Brewing Company in north Fayetteville, AR by 8 and ready to get the brew day started. I had been talking with the owners (a great group of guys) and the then Head Brewer Nathan Traw (now at Core Brewing Company) about a collaboration for some time now. I had been drinking more tea than I usually do, some for research, but had been steadily sipping Earl Grey tea. The more I drank, the more I wanted. And so, I brought up the idea of doing a beer with Earl Grey tea, and the boys were on board. Yes, that’s right, a tea beer. Has an Arkansas brewery made one yet? Not that I recall. We agreed to maintain the British theme and settled on an earl grey Extra Special Bitter.
As in cooking, brewing great beer starts with great ingredients. We wanted to retain the identity of this truly classic style, so we kept our target ABV to a sessionable mid 5% ABV, used floor malted British Maris Otter base malt, pulled the resident Apple Blossom Bakery’s help to lightly toast oats the day before to lend a big body and nuttiness to the malt profile. I thought, let’s make the best ESB base we can make, really emphasize the malt characteristics of that style.
We used British Kent Goldings hops because we really thought their earthy nature would play well with the earthy black tea. For once, I held restraint on the amount, keeping it traditional, because we wanted the aromatic profile to be all about the tea. Not just Bigelow or Kroger brand tea that I usually get–Davidson’s organic with real Bergamot oil. Derived from the Bergamot tree native to Calabria, Southern Italy, Bergamot oil and black tea make up the English favourite Earl Grey tea. Cold pressed, real Bergamot extract has an intense aroma of citrus fruits lemon, orange, and grapefruit. A couple of pounds were added at the last minute on the hot side (again, we wanted to imbue some real tea flavor in the bitterness and flavor of the brew), but we reserved the lion’s share for dry hopping. What I mean by dry hopping, is that in about a week or so, once the ESB has been fully or nearly fully fermented, we’ll rack the non-carbonated beer onto a new, sanitized vessel filled with about a pound per barrel of tea. This will, over the course of about a week, imbue the flavor and aroma of the tea without adding bitterness to the beer.
I digress. We still had to brew it. Brew day went swimmingly!
No stuck mashes (oats can give some systems hell), no boil overs, we hit our target gravities, I ate a great lunch from the kitchen (Apple Blossom kitchen staff knows how to cook!), had a smooth knockout to the fermenter.
I got to sample some of Apple Blossom’s experimental ales conditioning in their wine barrels. Whew! An oaked trippel that tasted like delicious Cognac, and a rustic, funky, soured, oaked Pale that was developing some really complex flavors.
The only hang up was that couple pounds of tea clogging up the floor drain during clean up. Sammie and I spent a solid hour on hands and knees, scooping and straining tea leaves from the trüb by hand to help it drain. Next time, we agreed: we bag the tea.
And so there we had it! Arkansas’ first Central – Northwest AR collaboration ale was in the fermenter, wort becoming beer.
A victory beer of Half Seas Over was as fitting as it was refreshing.
Then we were off to our other friend’s brewery across town, Fossil Cove. We were to attend the Arkansas Brewers’ Guild’s first tap takeover, where nearly all AR breweries donated beer and the proceeds from the sales went toward our legislative efforts at advancing the local craft beer movement in Arkansas. You know, I can only think of other people’s professional gatherings, like a stuffy doctors association or what a computer programmers’ conference might look like. Brewers are usually some of the most relaxed people in the crowd. They march to a slightly different beat. It was special to share a pint with those guys who share similar outlooks, motivated by similar passions.
I had plans of staying in Fayetteville that night, as I had planned on being completely knackered. But I got to hold one of the brewer’s 6-month old, and I could only think of getting back to my girls. And that was it: on the road back to home in Little Rock.
Now, in my haste, I forgot to do two things. I forgot to change out of my brewing shorts and boots ensemble, and I forgot to pee before I left Fayetteville. I suddenly realized the latter 10 miles in to the 40+ mile 540 to 40 leg of the drive home. By the Alma exit, I was hanging. The nearest gas station wasn’t quite Trainspotting bad, but its patrons seemed on par. I didn’t care.
Relieved, recaffeinated, it was a quick drive back home just in time to help Katchiri give our baby girl her nightly bath.
There are days in this new to me gypsy brewing life that I am still getting used to. The planning, the coordinating, the daily meetings, the endless emailing. It’s work, but of a different sort. I miss the brewing, the cellaring, wearing the boots every day. I feel better about myself when I come home physically tired. I certainly did that night, and all was right in my little world.
Much love to my dear friends at Apple Blossom. They are truly kind, doing things the right way, and it is a great feeling to have friends and peers like that in my home state. Expect our collaboration to be on tap at Apple Blossom’s beautiful brewpub, possibly on their nitro line! We are still working out distribution, but I hope to see our Earl Grey ESB pop up at other taps around Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock.