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12 San Diego Uptown News | Mar. 18–31, 2011

FOOD The Stone Brewing Co. Yeast Experiments T

o many a beer drinker, yeast is the least understood of beer elements. Many people understand what hops do to a beer—the dif- ference between an aggressively hopped IPA and a mild pale ale is evident, even to the least dedicated beer drinker. Hops influence a beer’s bitterness and aroma, and easily stand out in a beer’s flavor profile. The malt profile is pretty straightforward as well—think of the difference between a pale pilsner and a dark porter, or a nut brown and a light lager. Malt de- termines a beer’s color, its alcohol content, and it’s underlying flavor. But then there’s yeast. While many of us understand yeast’s role

in the brewing process—yeast cells consume sugar and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide as a result—few of us fully understand its impact on flavor. Yet yeast is re- sponsible for some of beer’s most recognizable flavors—the banana and clove notes in a hefewizen, the sour tang in a framboise. In fact, many breweries guard proprietary yeast strains under lock and key, knowing that they are the secret to their distinct flavor. “You know, when people talk about beer recipes and brewing, everybody focuses on hops and they focus on the malts, and they focus on the alcohol and the IBUs and all this stuff, and people don’t

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always focus on the yeast strain ... [yet] it’s really a very important part of the flavors,” said Mitch Steele, head brewer at Stone Brew- ing Co. in Escondido. “The yeast strain you use really has an impact on what the final beer is going to taste like.”

Mitch knows a thing or two about the power of yeast to transform a beer. In fact, for the past two and a half years, he and his team have been experimenting with re-making some of Stone’s regular beers with alternative yeasts. It all started when they de- cided to play around with a Belgian yeast strain. “We just started experimenting and using [a] Belgian-style yeast in our core brands, just to see what would happen,” explains Mitch. “The first one we did was Arrogant Bastard Ale, and that didn’t work out quite as good as we had hoped, but we tried it again ….”

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The next beer they tried it with was a winner. “We fermented Stone IPA in a Belgian yeast, and that came out really nice. That’s kind of how the Cali-Belgique was born.” Cali-Belgiquie IPA is a lightly hopped, slightly citrusy IPA with a hint of a Belgian undertone. Taste it, and a comparison to Stone IPA would never come to mind. Stone IPA tastes much more of malt, and is more straightforward, with hardly a citrus note. Yet both are made with the same malt bill, the same hops, the same water. The only thing different is the yeast. “I hope people understand that


everything in there is exactly the same except for the yeast,” says Mitch. “It’s kind of an eye-opening experience if you taste them side by side.”


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This year, Stone is releasing four other beers that offer the same eye-opening experience. As part of its “Odd Beers for Odd Years” program, the brewery has created alternative versions of two of its special releases: Stone Old Guard- ian Barleywine and Stone Imperial Russian Stout. Both are fermented with a Belgian yeast strain, rather than the original yeast the beers were designed with.

But, to me at least, the exciting

part is not just that Stone is releas- ing these alternative versions; it’s that it’s releasing them simultane- ously with the originals. For this, we have the Internet to thank. “There was a lot of discussion

Yeasty yummies at the Stone Brewing Co.

on beer websites on our decision not to release the standard Old Guardian this year. I think, a lot of people collect these and do vertical tastings, and they taste one year against the other, and they were really disappointed. So we kind of rethought the whole thing and said, well, we can do both of them,” Mitch explains.

What this means is an incredible

opportunity for the beer drinker. Buying a bottle of each version means you can have a back-to-back taste test of two beers that differ in nothing but the yeast. It’s a great learning experience, a chance to truly understand what characteris- tics yeast lends to a beer, when all other factors remain unchanged. The Stone Imperial Russian Stout won’t be released until April 18, but I recently picked up a bottle

each of Stone Old Guardian Bar- leywine and Stone Old Guardian BELGO Barleywine to try out the taste test.

Stone Old Guardian Barleywine is rich and warm, a well-balanced blend of sweet, boozy malt and not too aggressive but noticeable hops. The alcohol is present, but not too overpowering. The finish is smooth and sweet, with warm- ing caramel notes that linger on the tongue. Overall, it’s a well-bal- anced, well-crafted barleywine. The BELGO version is spicy

and feisty, the upfront yeast notes wonderfully balanced by the sweet malt backbone. Tasting this beer, it’s a wonder it differs so little from the original version—they taste like completely unique creations. This is bolder, more resonant, but also more intriguing. I think I actually like it better. It’s also in- teresting to note that although the yeast is the same strain used in the Cali-Begique, there is little resem- blance in flavor. In the barleywine, the yeast lends spicy, bready notes, far less floral and citrusy than in the Cali-Belgique. I highly recommend you grab a few friends and a few bottles of Stone beers and run this little taste test for yourself. Try the Stone IPA with the Cali-Belgique first, then move on to the two versions of Old Guardian. Come April, you can add a third di- mension, with back-to-back versions of the Stone Imperial Russian Stout. Or, if you’re not quite at the point where you’re ready for a yeast experi- ment, go out and buy them anyway, and sit on them for a while. “Both beers are totally suitable for aging,” says Mitch of the two

see Hoptown, page 14

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