By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In today’s growing world of beer, it seems we’re constantly bombarded by an insane array of different styles. Naturally, some are better than others. And among the winners is an elusive concoction that has often gotten a bad rap. The style I’m referring to is the apple beer or graff. This unique beverage, certainly familiar to fans of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series, takes the flavors of a traditional dry cider and blends them with a lovely mild ale. Not a cider and not quite a beer, it’s a whole new world of brewing possibilities — particularly was we approach the apple harvest.
The graff can be misunderstood and commercial executions can lead palates astray. Some recent iterations have shifted the flavor profile toward that of a cider or straight up apple flavor. But in the past, these brews were not a cheap way to try to sell cider; instead, they were more of a balanced beer-to-cider experience. This was achieved by using a more complicated and delicate technique to bring together two different forms of fermentation. While it’s possible to make a harmonious graff, it will require more work and planning than simply adding apple flavoring to a beer.
When those first homebrewers set out to create a graff, probably after a few pints one afternoon, they may have decided to simply add cider to a beer, post-fermentation. That’s likely how the snakebite was born. After such a “Eureka!” moment, the next natural course of action would be to ferment the beer and cider together. But this has its own list of problems, the biggest of which is choosing the proper yeast. Though all yeast will ferment the sugars in beer and cider, some of the flavors that are produced can be very specific to each finished beverage. The optimal strain for beer and cider together tends to be a British ale yeast. It will accentuate the malt flavors in the beer while subduing the tart, bitter notes of the apples.
Now that the yeast is out of the way, it’s time to focus on the apples. Not all of them are well-suited for cider making. In fact, you don’t need to use whole apples at all. Pick up some cider juice from the farmers market or grocery store — just be sure there aren’t any added preservatives. Only about half of your finished volume should be cider juice. For instance, if you’re making a 5-gallon batch, only 2.5 gallons (or less) of cider juice is necessary.
The beer base can be a little more complicated. While there are many beer styles, some won’t taste as good mixed in with a cider as others. Ultimately, though, it all has to do with personal preference and there are no hard rules. Traditionally, the base beer would be an English mild. Whatever you go with, make sure it has a low alcohol content, a light roasted note, little-to-no hop bitterness and a pleasant, biscuit-like aroma. Once blended with the cider juice, fermentation should produce a malt-forward dry beverage with a smooth apple finish. After electing your beer base, make a half-size batch. Once you’ve blended the wort, cider juice and yeast, it will ferment as normal and possibly become your next award-winning batch.
By Kris McDowell
For the Oregon Beer Growler
Harvest is a time for reaping what has been sowed. And while hop farmers are bringing in the fruits of their labor, the collaboration between Culmination Brewing and Reverend Nat’s Hard Cider is producing fruits of their combined labors.
Collaborations are fairly common in today’s beer world, with more breweries crossing the beer borders to team up with other adult beverage producers. These hybrids can be somewhat difficult to classify and won’t tempt all consumers from their respective markets. However, those open to new taste experiences may find something they enjoy that requires no classification beyond that fact that it’s the product of talented craftsmen.
Culmination and Reverend Nat’s collaboration, called Our Glass, goes beyond a single brew and encompasses a series of hybrids. The first release was Watermelon Cherry Sour — a blend of two sour beers produced by Culmination (a barrel-aged Flanders red with cherries and a blueberry blonde sour) that was co-fermented with Reverend Nat’s Granny Smith cider and fresh Hermiston watermelon juice.
The inspiration for this first in the series came from local food-beer-everything-tasty aficionado Steven Shomler’s love for and relentless pursuit of Reverend Nat’s Holy Water(melon) cider. Steven also has an ownership stake in and hands-on involvement with Culmination, which made the project launch even easier. The brewing teams could also often be found hanging out at each other’s locations, so there was a foundation of familiarity. Tomas Sluiter, principal owner and certified master brewer at Culmination, explained that the “caliber and quality of Reverend Nat’s made them attractive” to form a strategic collaboration and long-term relationship with.
When it came to the actual brewing, there was no doling out of “we’ll do this, you do that” instructions. The final product was the result of a true partnership, and one that seemingly worked well. The small batch consisted of six 1/6-barrel kegs and 450 22-ounce bottles, nearly all of which sold out quickly. Only a few bottles remain in the possession of each brewer and a couple of kegs will be brought out at a yet-to-be-determined time. Commenting on how the sour has evolved, Jim Bonomo of Reverend Nat’s said, “It’s getting more sour, but the watermelon flavor is still there.”
The name Our Glass was the brainchild of Devin Benware, part of Culmination brewing team. Tomas contributed the idea for the logo — two tulip glasses positioned base-to-base, forming the interior of a shadowy hourglass. The image is set like the hands of a clock would be at approximately 4:58 for the first of the series. As new collaborations are released, the “clock” will continue to move on each label.
Plans for future beer-cider hybrids include a barrel-aged, Tepache-based barleywine. Composed from Costa Rican pineapples, piloncillo (unrefined cane sugar) and spices, Reverend Nat’s Tepache is a “lightly alcoholic elixir.” However, the original brewing schedule has been thrown a bit off course due to the fickle nature of crops. The delay has nothing to do with ripeness (the pineapple plant produces throughout the year). Instead, a recent price spike in the Costa Rican supply due to volcanic activity has put things on hold. As a backup plan, to ensure the brewing schedule doesn’t go too far astray, Nat’s has bottles from the last batch of Tepache that can be added directly to the barrels with Culmination’s barleywine.
Another collaboration will involve Reverend Nat’s Winter Abbey Spice, a cider that is inspired by Northeast-styles that use raisins, cinnamon and nutmeg. Winter Abbey Spice is actually a blend of two ciders - Revival, their flagship cider, and Providence, which is made with raisins. What was initially called “Apple Pie” when the taproom started blending them has since taken on a life of its own to the extent that 75 percent of each batch of Providence is allocated to making Winter Abbey Spice. Due to the success of the first collaboration, expect larger batches of subsequent hybrids.
Both Reverend Nat’s and Culmination see a strong future in collaborations like theirs, in part because the cider business is growing, especially in mature markets like Portland where plenty of drinkers are looking to expand their palates. Tomas also believes that Portland consumers demand more due to the fact that so many people who now call the city home are non-native. He hails from Grand Rapids, Mich. and says in general terms, “everyone in Grand Rapids is from Grand Rapids.” In fact, he specifically asked one well-known and well-respected Grand Rapids brewery to collaborate with him and they replied that they simply don’t do collaborations.
That brewery’s loss is the gain of others who are likeminded. The Culmination-Reverend Nat’s collaboration is a fluid affair among friends, where getting together to spitball ideas is key along with firmly believing in the quality of what the other is creating. Listening to the two producers talk — the ideas generated by their creativity and openness to experimentation — gives the impression that there is no end to what they’re able to come up with. And just like friends do, when a bump in the road comes along — like the price of pineapples — they find a way around it. Beer drinkers and cider drinkers alike can raise their glasses to that.
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