By Chad Christianson
Despite claims of the opposite, I am a simple person. We all are. I love simple things, especially food. Food should be simple, elegant and, most importantly, affordable. When done right it is. Four dollars for bleu cheese, three dollars of figs, fifty cents worth of flour, water and salt and fifty cents worth of balsamic and olive oil makes an incredible flatbread for two. Four dollars a person; simple numbers.
I am also a ‘process person’. It is the making, not necessarily the end-product, that fascinates and captures me. Hence, my inquiry into the art of creating beer.
The not-so-simple directions were as follows:
“From your house go 2 blocks east and turn left. Follow that road north, out of town. Once you have crossed the river and two irrigation ditches and passed through a pair of stoplights look for a large cow pasture with a couple dozen black angus on it. It will be on the right and there will be a gravel road heading east through the center of it. Take that road. When you pass through the gate on the east side, hang a right, pass the first house and wait until you see the greenhouse frames. Turn left just past the large mound of potting soil, cross the railroad tracks, and continue past the grapevines and two large piles of mulch. Turn left again. Pass the year-round greenhouse on the right and the two story Victorian home on the left. Where the road T’s, look left. You will see a large tree drawn onto the back of a small garage. Make your way to the other side and we will meet you there. See you at 10 a.m. on Sunday.”
On the other side of the shed, behind a small farmhouse with a beautiful view of the Front Range, is the Cascadian Brew-Works (CBW) Annex. I was greeted by five people. Zach is the brewmaster for CBW and Quality Czar at Odell Brewing. Chad is a brewer and yeast wrangler, also at Odell. Rachel owns Affinitas Apothecary. Nic owns Native Hill Farm. Francesco is the owner and head chef of the Fireworker’s Oven, a local catering business.
The first step was to ride bikes to Nic’s farm to harvest enough golden beets for Zach’s latest invention: the Mangel-Wurzel, a recipe based loosely on the Belgian farmhouse or saison tradition. Named after a variety of orangish-yellow beet native to Eastern Europe, the golden beet beer was a new spin on an earlier red beet beer known as ‘Ze Bolshevik‽’.
The beets were harvested, trimmed, rinsed, chopped, drowned in IPA and roasted until tender. They were then added to the malt: 35 lbs. of Weyerman’s Pilsner, 5 lb.s of Crystal 10 (for balance) and 2 lbs. of Carahell (for body). Hot water (165 F) was then mixed with the malt creating the mash. The beets and malt were subsequently steaped. After all the starch was converted and the beets were blanched white and nearly tasteless, Zach turned on the pump and pulled the wort (the hot water in which the mash had been soaked) into the kettle bringing it to a boil just as it finished filling.
While the wort was boiling we sat down to enjoy a special beer. Francesco had brought a bottle of Russian River Brewing Company’s Consecration Ale home with him after his last trip to Northern California. Consecration is an elegantly simple, yet intensely delicious beer. It utilizes two strains of yeast (brettanomyses and saccharomyces) and two strains of bacteria (lactobacillus and pediococcus). The result is then aged, with currants, in cabernet sauvignon barrels for six months before being packaged. To brew good beer, one must know good beer.
As the wort boiled for the next 90 minutes Zach gave an impromptu lesson in designing beer recipes. From time to time we stopped to add hops: 125 grams of Simcoe pellets and 4 oz. of Amarillo eventually made their way into the container. These were chosen because their citrus and floral aromas would balance the dry, earthy and, perhaps, spicy flavor of the beets.
When the hour and a half had passed, Zach hooked up the pump, ran the water through a heat exchanger and filled two 5 gallon carboys. Each batch was then topped with half of the beet juice/ IPA mix in which the beets had initially been cooked. The final step was to pitch the yeast and let the beer ferment for a month. One carboy received the standard production yeast used at Odells. The other yeast was cultured from Hiver, a winter saison from Fantome Brewery in Belgium. The carboys were then carried to the basement of the farmhouse where they fermented.
I learned that brewers are, in fact, exactly what Zach says they are: “large volume liquid transfer specialists”. The process of making beer is impressively simple, especially since we had the right tools. It is the subtleties in ingredients, temperature, time and the magical acts of microbes that really define a beer. The act of making beer, just as with cheese, bread and any other artisan food product should not be intimidating. It is something to explore.
Nowhere else have I experienced the kind of whole-hearted culinary adventurousness that is bubbling just below the surface of the local food ‘scene’ in Fort Collins. Homemade, wood-fired earthen ovens, underground ‘mad farmer’ dinners, beautiful handmade breads, incredible Sicilian folk food, etc. All of these are available and accessible in this town, if one knows where to look. They won’t be found with storefronts and they won’t cost much, if anything at all.