Monday, January 31, 2011

Brewing the Frontiersman Pale Ale: The Process

The Frontiersman
I was facing a new challenge as I prepared to make a new batch of the Frontiersman, my popular Northwest pale ale. I have always enjoyed making new beers and new styles, and on the odd occasion I've revisited an old recipe I've always tweaked it here and there: less malt, more hops, different yeast, etc. But with the Frontiersman, one of my most popular beers, there was almost nothing I wanted to change. This time the challenge would not be improvement, but maintaining an old standard, not something I had really tried before.

The Northwest pale ale is a well balanced style of beer that emphasizes hops over malt, but to a lesser degree than that of an IPA. When made well it combines drinkability with great hop and malt flavour, and is one of my favourite styles. Few quality local examples exist, but one great one is Driftwood Ale, which has become my go-to beer. (Before I receive any angry responses I am not referring to amber ales, another type of pale ale, of which there are many fine local examples such as Phillips Blue Buck and Driftwood Crooked Coast)

The Frontiersman pours a medium orange/amber and has a thick head of fine bubbles that lasts until the bottom of the glass. It has a citrus hop aroma from being dry-hopped (I'll explain this process later) and a moderate hop flavour of earthy, citrusy hops that is balanced with a good malt backbone. It has medium body and finishes well with moderate bitterness. I went through my supply of it in a painfully quick fashion and it soon became apparent that a new batch was necessary, and so here we are.
Barley, hops, water and yeast

As I mentioned before I was keeping to my previous recipe with two small exceptions: I would be using whole cone hops instead of pellets and purified water instead of good old Victoria tap-water. The first step was getting all the equipment and ingredients together: barley, hops, water and yeast. Once everything was ready it was time to mash. The mash is a process where malted barley and sometimes other grains are steeped in hot water usually around 65 degrees Celsius. This allows the enzymes in the malt to convert the sugars to a form were the yeast can use them, and thus produce two of my favourite byproducts: carbon dioxide, and alcohol. After this is completed the grains are rinsed, a process known as sparging, to extract any remaining sugars, and the liquid, known as wort, is collected. It is from this wort that beer is made.
The barley after the mash

Boiling the wort

Wort acts as the backbone of a beer's taste, giving it its colour and contributing flavours such as sweet, roasted, or smoked depending on the type of malt used. For this brew I only used simple 2-row malted barley for body and alcohol and crystal malt for colour and some caramel flavour. These grains would provide the structure to build the beer's hop character upon.

The hops, weighed and ready to go
The amount of time the hops spend in the boiling wort determines their effect on the beer. Nearer to the start of the boil creates bitterness, towards the end imparts hop flavour,  and at the very end will lend hop aroma.

The boil for this batch would last 60 minutes and as it began I put in the strong Zeus hops to give the beer its bitterness. As the boil approached its end I put in some Perle hops to give a floral and slightly spicy flavour to the beer, and at the very end I put in Cascade, the classic North American hop, to impart its signature citrusy aroma. Once the boil was finished I cooled the wort and strained it into the fermenter, and finally added the yeast, one of my favourite liquid strains.

Transferring to the Secondary
The yeast would now begin the process of transforming the sugar in the wort into alcohol and carbon dioxide. The yeast I used is a bit of a beast and the airlock was steadily bubbling in a matter of a few hours. Into my warm, dark closet went the fermenter and within three short days the bubbling airlock had slowed considerably. It was time to transfer to the secondary.

Secondary fermentation is somewhat of an optional step that some experienced homebrewers declare unneccesary and it acts mainly as a clarifying stage. Apart from preventing the unlikely occurrence of autolysis, or yeast death, transferring to a secondary also allows the brewer to take readings to see how fermentation is progressing and taste the beer to see how the flavour has developed.

With the dry-hops sitting on top
the Frontiersman goes back in the closet
In the case of the Frontiersman transferring would also allow me to dry-hop my beer, a critical step to creating the finished product I was shooting for. Dry-hopping is a process where hops are added to the beer mid-fermentation, as opposed to at the start, in order to enhance hop aroma. In my opinion, for any hop-emphasizing beer, and especially for an IPA, dry-hopping is not optional but mandatory. Without it you cannot create that truly full and rich hop aroma that adds so much to a beer's character. Similar to colour, aroma makes an impact on the overall impression of a beer that is difficult to deny. I have seen the effect when someone smells the bouquet of a well dry-hopped beer and their eyes begin to shine; they already like the beer, and they haven't even tasted it yet. So as not to throw off its balance, I only added a small amount of Cascade hops to the secondary, but if all goes well it would be enough to take the Frontiersman to the next level.

The Frontiersman will probably spend around two weeks in the secondary, allowing it to finish its fermentation and letting the yeast and dry-hops settle out. Once it is crystal clear and shows no sign of fermentation It can be bottled. When carbonation is finished comes the moment of truth, when it can be tasted and see if it lives up to the reputation of its predecessor. Until then I can only wait, but if all goes well in the end we should get...

... and who can argue with that?


  1. Mmm even better on a second read. This sure makes me want to roll up my sleeves and brew something fierce. Thanks for posting John. :D


  2. Not a problem. We'll have to do a brew session soon.