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GABF brewers' diaries

Tomme Arthur

Pizza Port Solana Beach - Sept. 14

Last week I talked about the aspects of entering the Great American Beer Festival and offered some insight into the timeline that brewers must follow. This week, I'll dive into the selection of beers from different batches and how we go about getting our beers from San Diego to Denver.

As I wrote before, we have been bottling more beers after brew sessions this year in hopes of stockpiling some different sets of bottles for the competition itself. This means that we have been bottle conditioning our beers using either krausen (fresh fermenting beer) or priming with new yeast and sugar. Experience has taught us that there are certain categories where bottle aging and conditioning is a crucial flavor component. This is especially true of the Belgian Style beers, where a secondary or tertiary fermentation can really help frame the finish of a beer.

As a brewbpub that doesn't bottle much beer, we have limited resources and specialized equipment for bottling. It has been our experience in bottling with cheap homebrew equipment that some of our beers suffer. This is not to say that you can't win with this type of equipment, it just means the margin of error is significantly reduced. For the GABF this year we are sending 8 beers and of those beers, 5 are bottled conditioned.

Two weeks ago Rich Link, our San Diego editor for the Celebrator Beer News, came by after work and Jeff Bagby and I sat down with Rich and tasted a bunch of the beers and different bottlings for the 2003 GABF. This is the first year that we have done this with different bottlings and I must say it was quite rewarding to have the opportunity to sample with three great pallets and perspectives on brewing. We started with the Seaside Stout, which I had bottled the week before. For this bottling, I had filled a 2.5 gallon keg with some Krausen(from our lightest beer- California Honey).

It was obvious from the moment I opened that first bottle that we had overcarbonated the beer, and that by adding too much krausen had a beer was much lighter in color than expected for a dry Irish Stout. Thus it was decided that the beer would need to be repackaged before we could send it out the door. The bottles were due to ship out in three days and as such, there was no time to bottle condition. Therefore, we had to force carbonate the beer. This is the process whereby CO2 is injected into solution in the beer. Almost all the beer consumed in Solana Beach is force carbonated, so this is not that big of a deal. Our subsequent bottling yielded outstanding results and we opened a bottle of the beer last Thursday night and are completely comfortable with the way this beer turned out in the bottle.

After opening the overcarbonated Seaside Stout, we focused our attention on the Hop 15. Again, we had bottle conditioned some of this beer and it was compared with the draft version of the beer we were pouring at the bar. All three of us agreed that while the bottle conditioned beer was great and would age well, we prefered some of the sharper qualities of the draft beer. This is a first time category at the GABF and none of us can predict for sure what type of beer will win this category, but we came to a consensus that this is most certainly a fresh hop category and the draft version smelled fresher in regards to the hops. As this was the case, it meant that I had to go back and bottle more Hop 15 to send to the GABF. Not a problem.

We moved on to the sequence of SPF beers. As you recall, we are sending three seperate Saison or Farmhouse beers to the Floor this year. We will be pouring SPF 8, 15 and 45. Of these beers, we started with the SPF 15. Jeff and I knew this beer would be great. We bottled it back in March and the bottle conditioning is high in CO2 volumes, making for a Champagne-like beer. We also had the beer on tap and were able to put the two versions side by side. The bottle beer showed well and is exactly what we have sent. The next beer we tried was SPF 45. We have just recently completed a major bottling of this beer for local sale involving about 500 Champagne bottles (750 ml) with cork finish. These bottles were primed with sugar and fresh yeast. We also packaged some of the beer with Krausen about a month and a half ago, just in case the big volume of bottles we produced were slow to carbonate. For the tasting, we also were able to taste the draft version.

All three of us were stunned with the depth of the big bottling SPF45. These, after all, are the bottles that will be for sale. I thought for certain the month and a half old case would have taken the cake, but I was wrong. Thankfully, we had three versions to pick from. In years past I have had to send the draft version of this beer, and it certainly is one the beers that benefits from bottle conditioning.

We moved on to the SPF 8. This is our dark Farmhouse beer. It happens to be one of Jeff and my favorite beers that we make. I can remember all the details about this beer and how it came to be like it was yesterday. The problem for us has always been we haven't found the right category for the beer. Last year the judges wrote that the beer was too spicey. That made us laugh because there aren't any spices in the beer. What makes it so spicey is the yeast we use. The bottles of SPF 8 were spot on, and Rich made the comment that he just wanted to inhale the beer. That is what I think any great beer should make you do. We'll see if we have figured out the right category for this beer this year. I certainly am pleased with the decision to send it again even though it has never won an award.

After the SPF 8 we took a break and sampled the Mother Pucker Kriek. This beer has been a labor of patience since the day we brewed it. Two years seems like an eternity to wait for a brewer when many of our beers go tank to tap in less then two weeks. While I can't give too much away about this beer until after the GABF, I have very high hopes for this beer. It is way interesting and Rich, Jeff and I shared our opinions as to how to make the final blend for the GABF. It is damn near impossible to make lambic without some sort of blending. Most lambic doesn't come from a single oak barrel. With this in mind we had to take our knowledge of lambic and barrel-aged beers to finalize a strategy for this beer. If we are lucky enough to win a medal for this beer, I might feel the greatest sense of accomplishment towards any of our beers because of the blending that took place to get the beer to Denver.

After the Mother Pucker, we finished with some Cuvee de Tomme. Last year marked the first year that the Cuvee was not awarded a medal in three years and while I was disappointed, it was painfully obvious that the bottles we sent did not merit an award. This year marks the first time that we have made enough Cuvee for sale and hopefully, sometime later this fall we will be selling this beer for the first time in bottles. As such, we had two vintages for our tasting (two more barrels were still not packaged for this year). The differences were quite noticeable, and it was easy to decide on the beer we wanted to send. One version featured a little bit more oak and cherry that had not integrated as well as the other bottle. This was easy to spot and for the most part was to expected as that bottle came from a newer barrel, which means more whiskey and less subtle flavors.

That was it for our mini-tasting. The only beer we didn't taste was the Cowabunga Cream Stout. It was bottled two months ago and is fine. There was no need to taste the beer as Jeff and I had recently sampled a bottle and found no faults other than it might be perhaps a tad thin.

Now that we had decided on all the beers, it was time to package up the last bottles including draft Seaside Stout, Hop 15 and the finalized blend of the Mother Pucker Kriek. All of the other bottles were culled out of their hiding areas and made ready to be shipped.

Next, about shipping.