Tonight I brew my first beer of 2014, and like every beer I brewed last year, its a beer that “I’ve been meaning to try for a long time”. I am generally long on ideas and short on time (what with all those pesky brewery tours), so it’s nice when I get to knock a really oddball style off my list. Tonight’s style is Purl.
Purl is a Wormwood Ale that was popular in Shakespeare’s time, and even mentioned a couple times by The Bard of Avon himself. To be fair, I didn’t pick Purl because of its obscurity, it’s historical significance, or even because I necessarily wanted to taste one. No, my motivation was much more mundane. I just got a couple pounds of fresh raw wormwood delivered to my home-brew shop, True North Brew Supply, and I wanted to be the first to try some. Having said that, I love trying to recreate historical beers, I like brewing obscure styles, and I don’t mind the bitter astringency of wormwood, so major motivating factor aside, I was looking forward to this experiment.
Some 15+ years ago, I used to make quite a bit of absinthe for myself and friends (the statute of limitations is up, right?), importing wormwood and other ingredients from Sweden – but it got to the point where more shipments were getting turned back at the border than were making it through, so I gave up trying.
[wormwood contains thujone, a controlled substance due to its hallucinogenic properties]
Besides, when I got my UBrew liquor license 7 years ago, that put a nail in the coffin of my grain alcohol experimentation days. Not worth the risk. Anyway, to my surprise, a few years ago brew shops began stocking wormwood again… something in the law changed, absinthe and other wormwood beverages became popular again, and wormwood was easier to get than ever. I had brought in a pound of it a couple years ago, and it kinda just sat there. Selling by the ounce, it took 20 months to sell that pound. Now that I had reordered, upon opening up that fresh bag of wormwood the vibrant aroma brought back some good memories, and I knew right there that I HAD to put this in a beer. And soon!
But what style of beer would benefit from a wormwood addition? Wormwood is after all, the 2nd most bitter plant on the planet (after Rue), but being a Hophead, I think I can handle a little bitterness…
I was thinking that a Gruit base, or even a simple IPA with wormwood additions for bittering might do the trick, but hey, since Purl was actually an established style that used wormwood, that would be a logical start. One caveat though, I am going to use hops in my beer. (Traditional Purl is unhopped, relying only on the herbs for bitterness).
For completely experimental beers, I generally aim to brew a half batch (about 10 liters). If it’s great, I can always scale up to a larger recipe next time, and if it’s a failure, I won’t be wasting too much beer. Here’s the recipe I settled on:
3.5 lb Marris Otter Malt
1.25 lb Golden Promise Malt
1.0 lb Munich Malt
0.5 lb Carapils
0.5 lb Crystal-15
0.25 lb Belgian Special-B
1 oz Briess Midnight Wheat
1 oz Liberty Hops 60 minute boil
I figured that traditional British base malts was the only way to go, but I’m pretty used to Marris Otter so I decided to throw in a portion of Golden Promise (the Northern UK/Scottish equivalent of Marris Otter) for its sweeter, clean flavour. To darken it up a bit, I was going to use about 4oz of Crystal-120 but opted for Belgian Special-B instead, thinking that it’s slight raisiny quality might offset the wormwood twang nicely. I wanted to shoot for a colour of about 18-19 SRM and BeerSmith said I was still a little light, so I tossed in an oz of Midnight Wheat – one of my great brewing tricks… wheat is huskless, so you do not gain any astringency from its addition, like you would from a typical roasted barley or black patent malt – and, the wheat is a pretty neutral taste, so basically, adding Midnight Wheat is like adding colour, and that’s it.
The Liberty hops have an Alpha Acid rating of 3.8%, so a 1oz addition boiled for 60 minutes in a batch of this size would yield about 23 IBU. The vital stats are as follows:
OG: 1.074 SG
FG: 1.016 SG
Mashing went off without a hitch, I collected 12 liters and hit a pre-boil gravity of 1.068.
Once the wort came to a boil, I added 1/4 oz of wormwood, along with the 1 oz of Liberty Hops.
With 10 minutes left in the boil, I was going to add another 1/4 oz of wormwood along with my Irish Moss, but during the 50 minutes of boil time, I started going through the pantry in my brewery and found some Moroccan bitter orange peel and some Egyptian chamomile, and I though “hey, a little citrus tang from the bitter orange and some sweet pineapple aroma from the chamomile might actually dance around that wormwood astringency nicely” – so, with 10 minutes left in the boil, I dropped in the Irish Moss, 1/4 oz of wormwood, 1/4 oz of bitter orange peel, and 1/8 oz of chamomile.
With the boil complete, and wort cooled to room temperature, I did a quick aeration and dropped in a pack of Danstar Nottingham. I did a lot of thinking about what yeast to use, but after an inner debate about what kind of yeast profile a beer from 1650 might have, I decided that for this test I’d rather not worry about yeast presence, and instead opt for a simple, clean fermenting, neutral yeast. That way, I could appreciate the wormwood, spice and herb additions without any yeast-taste clutter. That’s the theory anyway.
I didn’t quite hit my target gravity. OG ended up being 1.072
BUT, I mashed at 150F, probably lower than a traditional Purl, so I suspect more of those sugars are fermentable and therefore I’ll probably end up with a lower FG ~1.014 … so as far as ABV goes, I suspect I’ll nail 7.7%.
Once fermentation is complete, I’m going to “dry-hop” for a week with another 1/2 oz of wormwood (if you’re counting, that makes an even 1 oz of wormwood in this 3 gallon batch). And I also just decided that I’m going to crack about 10 black peppercorns and drop them in at the same time. I think the spiciness is going to play nicely with the wormwood … at least that’s what my chef-brain is telling me… we’ll see!
12 hours after pitching the yeast, activity was evident. 24 hours after, a nice kreusen had formed. At 48 hours, fermentation in full swing. That’s the great thing about Nottingham – I’ll probably be racking out of the primary on day 5, adding my wormwood for a week, and then bottling before day 14.
UPDATE: Jan 20th
I racked into the secondary today, first putting 1/2 oz of wormwood and 10 black peppercorns into the clean carboy before racking the beer over top. Smells pretty damned good!
UPDATE: January 26th
Just bottled it. Holy mother of pearl, it is BITTER! Way too bitter. I bottled it anyway, but I think at serving time I might have to cut it in half with a neutral beer like a regular pale ale. Next time I make this I don’t think I’ll even use half as much wormwood… holy damn…
I’ll update this post again once it’s ready to drink!
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