An increasing number of craft breweries are releasing special beers once a year that are, of course, highly sought-after and therefore difficult to get. Some off the top of my head include Portsmouth Brewing's Kate the Great (of which I brewed a clone last November), Three Floyd's Dark Lord, and Boston Beer Company's Utopias (actually, I think that's every TWO years). One yearly-beer that is easier and cheaper to get your hands on comes from one of the most popular craft breweries in the U.S., Stone Brewing in Escondido, CA. I'm talking, of course, about the Vertical Epic series.
Since 2002, Stone has released a Belgian-style ale every year, on the same-numbered month and day of each year (i.e. February 2nd, 2002, March 3rd, 2003... the last beer in the series was just released yesterday, December 12th). The beer is different every year, varying from a Belgian Wit to a highly-spiced Saison, to a "Belgian Imperial Porter", which is the beer that I brewed in August of 2011. The VE090909 was the first of this series of beers that I tried, and I really enjoyed it. It had a lot of chocolate-character to it, some roastiness, with a slight background of fruit, oak, and characteristic Belgian-spiciness.
Luckily for all of us, the people at Stone have been good enough to release very-detailed homebrew recipes of each of their VE beers, about a year after they've been released. The recipe that I followed (to the best of what I had available) is found here; Stone even encourages sending in your homebrewed clones for a little competition, but only the year after the beer was originally made (putting mine out of commission).
This beer was by far the most-complicated recipe I had brewed at the time, and it probably still is, actually. It involved seven different malts in the grist, two hop additions (just at the bittering stage), some dark Belgian candi syrup, some spices in the whirlpool, and a short aging period on French oak. I used an equal amount of Bohemian Pilsner and Canadian 2-row to substitute for the recommended "Pale Malt". Aside from an additional substitution in the spices (I had no idea how to get dried tangerine peel, so I went with dried sweet orange instead, which I'm sure was a perfectly-suitable replacement), I was actually able to follow the recipe pretty closely.
The brewday went very well - I hit my numbers almost perfectly, had a healthy starter of Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes going... perfect. I pitched the yeast starter at 66 F (Stone fermented this beer at 72 F to maximize fruity esters) and set the Better Bottle in a laundry sink with some ice water. It was a very hot August day, and I knew temperature-control would possibly be an issue, so I aimed to keep the temp in the mid-to-high 60s until fermentation activity upped it to the low-70s. I had read that Wyeast 3522 was a bit of a powerhouse yeast, but I wasn't worried. Only 8 hours after pitching, however, the airlock had a lot of activity; however, the temp was still just at 68 F, so I went to bed and didn't think about it.
I woke up the next morning to my first (and so far, only) major beer explosion. The airlock had exploded out of the BB, and the walls, floor, ceiling, and door of the laundry room were completely covered in beer. It took hours to scrub off. A word of advice: use a blow-off tube when you can! Surprisingly, I didn't lose as much beer as I thought, but I'd say a good 3 litres were gone. After three weeks in primary, I racked the remaining beer into secondary and added the sanitized French oak chips. The Stone recipe recommends tasting the beer every 3 days until you get the oak character that you want; being afraid of overdoing it, I only keep the beer on the oak for 6 days. Therefore, the amount of oak character in my homebrewed version is very low, but it IS slightly detectable!
I plan on doing more of these Vertical Epic beers in the future, as the 090909 recipe does make a very tasty beer, and it ages great. My next attempt at this series will likely be the 020202, a high-gravity Witbier.
Appearance: Poured with a medium-sized, light-brown head that sticks around for a good while before finally starting to fade. Body is jet-black and opaque.
Aroma: Lots going on here. First off, the chocolate comes through pretty prominently, but it's backed up nicely by some complementing caramel/toffee sweetness, just a hint of oak, and a little alcohol. No hop aroma, as expected.
Taste: Dark chocolate, some caramel sweetness, and coffee. Finishes sweet, but with a firm, moderate bitterness and some nice spiciness from the yeast. Maybe a bit of astrigency. The flavors have mellowed now compared to a year ago, now that it's had some time to age. The oak and vanilla are there, but are pretty mild, as is the orange peel. Nice to see that they don't overpower the beer at all.
Mouthfeel: Medium-bodied, with moderate carbonation. A slight amount of alcohol warmth that is actually welcome on a cold night!
Overall: Very tasty. I was lucky enough to have the real thing for the second time just a couple of weeks ago... it was among other beers, but I'd say the homebrewed version is pretty close. The commercial beer is definitely smoother, however.
Recipe: (5.5 gallons, 70% efficiency) OG 1.080, FG 1.018, IBU 54, SRM 46, ABV 8.1%
2.86 kg Bohemian Pilsner
2.86 kg Canadian 2-row
772 g Crystal 80 L
409 g Chocolate malt
341 g Aromatic malt
136 g Black Patent malt
136 g Carafa II
Magnum - 28 g (9,4% AA) @ 90 min
Pearle - 28 g (8.3% AA) @ 90 min
227 g Dark Belgian Candi Syrup (D2) @ 15 min
1/2 tsp yeast nutrient @ 15 min
1/2 tab Irish Moss @ 5 min
14 g Sweet Orange peel @ flameout
2.5 g Vanilla Bean (chopped) @ flameout
23 g French Oak chips, at 40 F, for 6 days
Yeast: Wyeast 3522 Belgian Ardennes (with a 3 L starter)
Water: Fredericton city water, mash and sparge water treated with 1/2 tablet of campden.
- Brewed August 9th, 2011, by myself. 60-minute mash with 20.69 L of strike
water, mashed in at 151 F. Sparged with ~4.5 gallons of 180 F water for
final volume of 7.25 gallons in the kettle. SG 1.059 (target 1.057). 90-minute boil. 10-minute whirlpool at flame-out. Chilled to
67 F with immersion chiller. Poured into Better
Bottle. Pitched yeast slurry at ~66 F, aerated by shaking for several minutes before and after pitching.
- Airlock activity quite high after only 8 hours; complete blow-out by next morning. Temp got as high as 75 F at one point, but mainly was able to keep it at ~72 F by keeping the BB in the laundry sink and continually adding ice water daily.
- Racked to secondary on August 30th and put in fermentation chamber with temp set at 40 F. Added sanitized French oak chips a few days later. After 6 more days, bottled with 111 g table sugar, aiming for 2.5 vol CO2.