Friday, January 29, 2010

Brewing with Ska

Soggy Coaster Imperial Red Ale is fermenting as you read this.

My collaboration beer with Ska Brewing Co., Soggy Coaster is sitting in a little fermenter next to much larger fermenters holding Ska beers like Decadent Imperial IPA and True Blonde Ale. My little 10-gallon batch is dwarfed by the neighboring 90-barrel (2,790 gallon) tanks. It appears to be holding its own, but who knows what bullying it endures from the bigger tanks after the lights go off at night.

I met with Ska Head Brewer Thomas Larsen on Monday to brew the beer on Ska's pilot system. It was a time-consuming task that essentially took a full 9-to-5. We started out scrubbing everything with a chlorine solution.

"We do a lot of cleaning," Larsen said. "We're really just glorified dishwashers, with bigger dishes."

We then boiled water, added the malts and heated them up. We stirred the wort and then transferred it into the fermenter via a super-fly coil system.

Aggravatingly, our wort came in with a much-too-low original gravity of 19 degrees Plato, giving the brewing system an inexplicable 43 percent brewhouse efficiency. So Thomas and I started dumping in amber malt extract. We overcompensated, leading to a 20.8 degrees Plato OG.

This means Soggy Coaster should end up around 8.5 to 9 percent ABV, when we were shooting for 7 percent ABV. Hopefully, it won't be overpowering, but there can now be no doubt that it's earning its "imperial" name.

I was aiming to approximate Ninkasi Believer (6.9 percent ABV, 60 IBUs). It looks like it's going to be closer to Oskar Blues Gordon, (8.7 percent ABV, 60 IBUs), another imperial red I greatly admire. The point was to brew a beer unlike any brewed in Durango, and in that, it looks like we'll succeed.

This proves that brewing is both art and science. No matter how many calculations you do or how advanced your equipment is, things can go wrong. I bet it'll still taste good, and maybe even great.

I asked Ska President Dave Thibodeau about what might have gone wrong. He replied: "Not sure, except that it’s just not as efficient as our big system. The question is why did other recent batches vary so much? Regardless, you get the character you were after as far as color and flavor, because the volume didn’t change - adding the malt, assuming it was light, will pretty much just create alcohol and body."

The most fun part was hopping the beer. Each time we threw a batch in - first German Tradition, then Crystal and finally Cascade and Willamette aroma hops - the wort boiled up with a green appearance like split-pea soup. It was beautiful, and the Hop Union pellets had an incredible aroma.

It was also fun to meet the full roster of Ska employees. I have known Thibodeau for years through my work at The Durango Herald - he's Ska's designated media liaison - but it was intriguing to finally meet Ska co-founder Bill Graham and Matt Vincent, who bought in when Ska was only a year old, completing the ownership triumvirate. Everyone at Ska has been warmly welcoming. (Vincent said he's an avid Beer at 6512 reader, which greatly pleases me. I appreciate all the industry folks who read my ramblings).

Wandering around the brewery, I was impressed by how big Ska has grown. In 2009, Ska brewed 11,682 barrels - tiny in comparison to New Belgium or Sierra Nevada, not to mention Coors, but a lot bigger than it used to be.

Throughout the day, young men - and it is mostly young men, although there are women to be found - were clanging kegs against the ground, filling True Blonde cans that whirred into place and, as always, brewing massive batches of Pinstripe. The activity is nonstop. Meanwhile, the huge fermenting tanks loom like Ellis Island statues.

Behind the scenes, Ska HQ is reminiscent of a science lab. There are spectrometers, thermometers, test tubes.

I was also struck by how industrial - dirty, if you like - brewing is. Brewing isn't office work. It's stainless-steel clamps and rubber hoses. It's chlorine and hot water. It's cigarette breaks and swearing when something goes wrong.

Despite our original gravity mishap, I'm excited for the beer to come out. It should be tapped in mid-to-late February, along with Jeff's beer. (Jeff Hammett of Beer N Bikes is brewing a Belgian-American IPA).

My remaining quandary is whether to dry-hop my beer. On one hand, imperial reds are mostly about showcasing the malts, I feel there are plenty of hop bombs out there, and it's not like we didn't hop it in the first place. On the other hand, it could be fun and may add some complexity to the beer. What do you think? Leave a comment.

Our little collaboration is gaining a little media attention. A Durango Telegraph writer interviewed me, my first experience being on the other side of the tape recorder. Hopefully we'll see a story out in February.

Most of all, though, I just want the beer to taste good. That's really what craft brewing is about. I'll let you know when a firm date for the keg-tapping is set.

Photos: At top, Ska Head Brewer Thomas Larsen (left) and Chuck Slothower, taken by Ska President Dave Thibodeau. Middle and bottom: The inner workings of Ska, photos by Chuck Slothower.


  1. Hop it with your beard Soggy. That thing is massive and badass.

    Great read.

  2. Dry hop it... It'll make it better.

  3. Sounds like you had an interesting brew day. My last recipe didn't turn out like I thought. My porter turned out more like a Marzen. It takes some experience over time to get things just right. Wish I had more time to homebrew. Looking forward to hearing about how this turns out.

  4. Chipper, Given that it was based on the recipe for Ska's Pinstripe Red Ale, and given that I had help from Ska's head brewer, I'm not expecting any major surprises style-wise. It should taste like an imperial red.