Obviously the best part of BeerHoptacular is the beer… and this year our brewery friends are pulling out all the stops by bringing some really, really (really) cool stuff. Our friends at Lagunitas even went so far as to put together two limited edition firkins that will only be served at BeerHoptacular. Pretty special. We sent one of our writers to document the process.
As I pull into the parking lot outside Lagunitas’ Chicago brewery I’m struck, as I always am, by its impressive size. The brewery is massive. Otherworldly. It takes up 300,000 square feet of space with ceilings that are 60 feet tall. For scale, that’s roughly the same amount of space that Soldier Field occupies. Solider Field!
I’m here to spend the day with brewer Joe Flores (or Joe Flow as he’s colloquially known), as he brews two special firkins just for BeerHoptacular. What’s a firkin? It’s a small steel cask that’s filled with beer and special ingredients like fruit, peppers and hops and then left to extract flavors and ferment. It’s a way to make an ultra small batch experimental beer.
After some deliberation, we decide that Joe will design one recipe and I’ll design the other, and that both beers will use Lagunitas IPA. What followed over the next few hours was an inside look at the two sides of Lagunitas: the meticulously buttoned-up production side, and the creative, “let’s just see how it goes” attitude.
Step One: Clean
Brewing is 99% cleaning. If anything comes in contact with the beer, you’ll get problems. So to start, Joe cleans everything.
“Everything that we do for our main beers is cleaned by chemical. In brewing, you have to be very sanitary and we push the cleaning chemicals through at 220 degrees, nothing lives at that temperature. With something like this, we’re not able to do that so we have to be even more careful. Everything has to be sanitary.”
The cleaning process is exhaustive. First Joe uncaps a firkin that was sitting in caustic, then dumps the caustic, rinses it out, sanitizes a large barrel, fills it with water, submerges the firkin, adds a cleaning solution and pulls it out and dumps the solution. It’s a lot of work.
Step Two: Prep The Ingredients
I ask Joe what he wants to brew. He’s not sure, he says, but we’ll find out. His philosophy on recipe development is pretty simple, “The more simple the firkin, the better it tastes.” On that note, he rifles through a small fridge and pulls out some sour cherry puree and kiwi puree and goes into a mini rant about how amazing the stuff is. “It’s really expensive stuff but it’s full or flavor and comes through really, really, really well.” Then he makes me try some. I agree.
“If you used these fruits on something funky like a Brown Shugga,” he continues, “You’re probably not going to get it a lot out of it. But something simple like a pilsner or this IPA, they really pop. So I figure, a kiwi, sour cherry with IPA should be awesome. Really good.”
Step Three: Fill The Firkin With Fruit
This part is pretty simple: Joe puts the fruit into the firkin. But not without stopping every few minutes to sanitize. #sofreshandsocleanclean
Step Four: Put Beer Into The Firkin
Each of the fermentation vessels in the brewery is named after a lost dog from someone who works here. So we poured one out for Jasmine, then poured some out of Jasmine. The beer is taken before primary fermentation and before dry hopping, and is passed through a sanitized hose into the firkin.
Step Five: Name The Damn Thing
I wish I could tell you about a long, detailed conversation in which we wrestled over what this beer was trying to SAY, you know? Instead, here’s how the naming thing went down:
Matt: “You have to name this one.”
Joe: Uh, you got any ideas?
Matt: What did you dream about last night?
Joe: I think I was rich.
Matt: That’s a pretty good name for a beer.
And so firkin #1 got it’s name: I Think I Was Rich.
The second firkin is a lot like the first. Joe cleans, preps the ingredients, fills the firkin, pulls the beer, and names the damn thing. Only this time, I decide on the recipe and the name.
Joe still does all the real work.
The recipe development process isn’t very much of a process…it’s more of a balance between experimentation and knowledge. Joe knows what works and what doesn’t. When I ask what ingredients we have to work with, he suggests we go check out the kitchen. When we get there, he bursts in, gives a few high fives and “what’s ups” and asks what’s on hand. Oranges, it turns out. So he took a few and zested them.
Then it’s over to the cooler to see what fruit puree is available. I select apricot.
Then I remember that Joe had mentioned white peppercorns earlier, which sounds like a tasty mix to me, so I suggest it. Joe thinks this will add a nice depth to the beer by giving a slight kick.
He enlists the help of a fellow brewer, Matt, to help fill a sock with the zest and peppercorns so they don’t leak out into the firkin. He then adds the puree, fills it with beer and caps it off to sit for a few weeks.
The naming process for firkin #2 was less interesting. Which is to say, I just thought of something. It’s called, “The Writer Wants White Peppercorn So We Put In Some Peppercorn.”
That’s it, we’re done, I’m tired (even though I didn’t really do any work) and Joe’s still peppy. I end the day by asking Joe what he enjoys about making firkins, “When you work at a production brewery, you’re doing recipes that have been around for a long time, so in brewing this is pretty much the only time where you’re able to do your own jam, you know? So it’s pretty special doing firkins.”
And then he leaves me with this thought on his life as a brewer, “It took me 35 years to find it but I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
I Think I Was Rich
IPA with Sour Cherries and Kiwi
The Writer Wants White Peppercorn So We Put In Some White Peppercorn
IPA with Orange Zest, Tangerine and White Peppercorn
Saturday, November 05, 2016
BeerHoptacular takes place over two sessions on Saturday, November 5, 2016 at the awe-inspiring Cinespace Chicago Film Studios. For the sixth time, Chicago craft beer fans will come together to celebrate their love of American beer culture and sample from an enormous selection of beer.
Join us and 4,000 of our closest friends. If you don’t, you’ll probably regret it. Tickets>>