Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Review of Midwest Supplies' Schwarzwald Black Lager Kit

A few months ago Midwest Supplies Homebrew & Winemaking contacted us asking if we would like to review one of their recipe kits. As all of us are homebrewers it was a natural fit and I was selected to be the lucky brewer/reviewer. They told me to go ahead and pick any of their kits, all-grain or extract. This was harder to do than you might imagine. There are 118 extract kits and 88 different all-grain kits to choose from! They’ve got anything from light lagers to specialty beers. The kit I selected is the Schwarzwald Black Lager which is meant to be a schwarzbier. I was on the tail end of a run of lagers I was making over the winter and I was already planning on making a schwarzbier so this fit in perfectly with my plans.

I’m a relatively experienced homebrewer. I’ve been doing this for something like 5 years and have progressed to the point where I use a temperature controlled and automated brewstand capable of brewing up to 15 gallons of beer at a time, so I am probably not exactly the target customer for Midwest Supplies when it comes to selling homebrewing kits. That’s not to say that kits are beneath me nor are they, by definition, inferior to putting together your own recipe. They do have their limitations, however. Probably the number one limitation, in my opinion is that they are designed around someone else’s system with a different efficiency and usually a different final volume than me. This means that even when using a kit, I still have to make some calculations and adjustments which takes away some of the convenience of using a pre-packaged kit. It would be awesome if in the ordering process, one could specify an expected efficiency and post-boil volume which would then scale the ingredients to match your particular system! Whatchya think Midwest Supplies? Great idea, no?

Anyways, upon receiving the kit, I noticed right off that everything seemed very well packaged and the included instructions are very clear and easy to follow, guiding you from receiving the yeast to bottling the final beer with instructions for each major step along the way. The instructions are pretty basic, however, and somewhat old school (especially in the fermentation section), so homebrewers who are more experienced will probably want to look past them and use the standard procedures that they’ve already developed for themselves.

The malt comes all pre-mixed in one bag which I really appreciated as it makes it nice and easy to just dump the bag of malt into my mill (Midwest Supplies will also mill your malt for you at no extra charge if you don’t own a mill) and be off and brewing. Of course, while it is super convenient to have everything all in one bag, I can’t help but wonder how I would know if I got the right malts in the correct quantities. Mistakes happen to the best of us and it’d be nice to be able to review the malt bill before mixing the malt together. This is a very minor quibble though, and really probably only matters to paranoid brewers like myself.

Now, this recipe is different than what I would have put together for a schwarzbier. I have not had the opportunity to try very many of these black lagers but I tend to think of a schwarzbier as a black German pilsner; relatively bitter and hoppy with a clean lager fermentation character and some low roast notes from the use of darker malts. In a beer like this I would generally use a debittered black malt like Carafa Special II to get color without a lot of roasty flavors. And it seems that the folks at Midwest Supplies agree with me because there are 6 ounces of Carafa Special II in the recipe. However, there is also 4 ounces of Sinamar color extract which struck me as odd. Why not simply use more Carafa? Possibly for fear of too much flavor contribution I suppose.  One other thing I would consider odd is that the “flavor” hops in this kit are Fuggle, an English variety. I don’t usually think of using English hops in a German beer. But no matter, it’s the taste of the final beer that counts, not the specific ingredients used to get there right?

The brewday went off without a hitch. I hit my original gravity of about 1.048 pretty much spot on. It turns out that my greater post-boil wort volume (6 gallons instead of 5) was perfectly offset by my higher efficiency. That worked out well! Fermentation also proceeded as expected and after a few weeks I had a final gravity of about 1.014. I cold crashed the beer for several days and then kegged and carbonated it.

The beer has been conditioning for a few weeks now. It’s very clean and smooth. It’s balanced more towards the malt side with the hops playing only a minor supporting role but it’s not sweet. At first, there was a hint of roast, but that seems to have dropped out with carbonation and time though there is certainly dark malt flavor, just not roast. With only 2 ounces of roasted barley, this is not surprising to me. It has a medium to full body and drinks easy. All in all I would say it is a good beer. If I were to brew it again I would up the bittering by about 10 IBUs and would add some late hopping for a more noticeable hop aroma and flavor. I would also ditch the Sinamar and use more Carafa to get the color back though I might use Carafa Special III rather than II because I tend to perceive a non-roasty coffee flavor from that malt that I think would work really well in a schwarzbier.

I had a good experience with this kit, and while, I’m not sure I would buy this particular kit again, I would not hesitate to browse through the rest of Midwest Supplies’ inventory and try another one someday. I would certainly not hesitate to recommend their kits to a new brewer as they have a great selection and the instructions are clear and not quite as daunting as they could be.

For a more experienced brewer who is looking to make the best beer they can, I would also say that I could recommend one of Midwest Supplies’ kits, but with a couple caveats. The first being that while the instructions don’t say to make a starter or pitch more than one pack of yeast, you really do need to have a large quantity of yeast for fermenting a lager. One sachet of dry yeast sprinkled on top is not going make the best beer possible. I was able to use yeast from a batch of a Munich Dunkel that had recently finished fermenting otherwise I would have probably done a multi-step starter to have a large quantity of healthy, active yeast.  The second caveat is in regards to the fermentation instructions. The instructions advocate a “warm pitch” method where yeast is pitched at something like 65°F and held there until fermentation begins. The fermenting beer is then chilled to around 50°F until near the end of fermentation when it is raised back up to the mid-60s for a diacetyl rest. This had been the way lagers were fermented by homebrewers for a long time before we learned the importance of making a starter and pitching the right quantity of healthy, active yeast. It’s actually better to pitch the correct quantity of yeast (there are great calculators out there, Jamil Zainasheff's being one of them) at your target fermentation temperature or a bit lower and letting the fermentation run its course. If you pitch enough good yeast, it can be possible that you may have no need for a diacetyl rest, plus the cooler temperatures at pitching will inhibit the unwanted fruity esters and initial diacetyl production from the start.

Thanks a lot to Midwest Supplies for sending me this kit and allowing me to review it! I will enjoy this beer all the way up to the point where the tap is making that depressing whooshing sound!

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