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Mexican Cocoa Imperial Stout

January 6, 2013

*Updated 4/10/13

About a month ago, I took a trip to visit friends in Tampa.  The first thing we did, when my buddy Mike picked me up at the airport, was stop by Cigar City Brewing.  Well.. after breakfast.

Like any good beer nerd, I was aware of CCB’s reputation and they certainly didn’t disappoint.  Every beer I had was well thought out and well executed.  ’Itsa Pale Ale’ was delicious and reminded me of some of the awesome Pale’s I had at Hill Farmstead in September.

Unfortunately, the most buzzed-about CCB beer, Hunahpu’s Imperial Stout, is only available in March.  It’s one of those release day beers that you pretty much have to be in attendance to pick up.  I’ve never had Hunahpu and realistically, I probably never will.  That said, I love the idea of the beer – a rich, chocolately imperial stout with a kick of pepper.  Since I can’t get Hunahpu, and I’m pretty confident in my brewing ability, why not make my own beer of the same inspiration.

The real inspiration for this beer is Mexican Cocoa, which is richer, darker and more bitter than our americanized (read: bastardized) version of hot cocoa.  In a lot of cases, mexican cocoa can also have a hint of heat, from some variant of chile pepper.

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I decided to make a big stout that would be loaded with the flavors of Mexican Cocoa.  The first step is figuring out the specifics of your Stout, based on what you want the end product to be like.  Of the Imperial Stouts I’ve had, the fatal flaw that many have is that they are so damn sweet.  So many of the offerings out there are too rich, bordering on syrupy and cloying.  I’ve never had Dark Lord, but I’ve heard it’s insanely sweet and really not worth the hype.

I decided that while I wanted some body and sweetness, I wanted to stay away from too much.   The malt bill that I came up with is fairly complex and has quite a few malts that are going to contribute ‘unfermentable’ sugars (these become the residual sweetness of a beer).  Keeping that in mind, I kept my mash temp very low, so that the 17# of base malt will be mostly converted to fermentable sugars.  I also chose a fairly attenuative yeast and pitched a big, 2L starter of it.  My hope and expectation is that this will ferment down fairly low (to about 1.020), leaving me with a stout with ample backbone, but not overwhelming sweetness.

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The dark, viscous, 1.110 first runnings

Another tricky component to this beer was that it has nearly 2# of roasted malts.  While these are necessary to achieve the flavors I want out of the beer (chocolate, coffee, roast, toffee, dark fruit, etc), they are highly acidic.  This can both throw off your mash conversion (efficiency) and create unwanted flavors.  Unchecked, malts like Roasted Malt and especially Black Patent will product harsh, acrid, bitter and burnt flavors.  A lot of homebrewers compensate for this by aging a beer like this for a year or more, because those flavors will mellow with time.  Personally, I’ll be cellaring a lot of this batch, but I want to drink some soon, and I want it to be smooth and delicious now.

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During the brew, we split a “Mini Growler” Imperial Stout from Westbrook/Evil Twin. It was awesome.

Modifying your water is the way to get around aging these flavors out.  I carefully chose a profile that would neutralize the acidity of the roasted malts.  In turn, I was able to achieve 87%+ on my efficiency and have a wort that is free of overly harsh flavors.  Similarly, I think it’s absolutely critical to filter the chlorine and chloramine out of your water for a beer like this.  The opportunity for chlorophenols to be produced by the chlorine/chloramine reacting with components of your beer is high.  Personally, I never brew with unfiltered water, but its particularly important in a beer like this, or one with lots of hops.

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The final challenge with this beer was the sheer size of it – this is the biggest all-grain beer I’ve ever done.  A typical 5/6 gallon batch for me includes a grain bill of 12-15#, which calls for 3-4 gallons of mash/strike water and a roughly equal portion sparge.  To be able to hit an acceptable water-to-grist ratio (1.25-1.5 is good, IMO) with a grist of 22ish pounds, I needed ~6.75 gallons in the mash.  This stresses the limits of my 10gal mash tun and also takes me into uncharted territory – how much will I lose to absorption, how much do I sparge with, do I need to compensate for efficiency loss/gain, etc.

In the end, I wound up going with the big-ass mash (I had to) and sparging with about 3.5 gallons of acidified sparge (too alkaline will extract tannins).  I collected around 9 gallons pre-boil (~1.085 gravity), which was a lot, considering I wanted to finish with about 6.5.  I got 7.5 gallons into an 8 gallon kettle, and the other 1.5 in a smaller pot on the stove top.  I let both of these boil down until I had about 7.75 gallons, at which point, I added both to the 8 gallon pot and tossed in my 75 minute hop addition.

This worked out beautifully, as I slightly overshot my gravity while hitting my volume dead on.

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Onto the recipe…

Mexican Cocoa Imperial Stout
13-F Russian Imperial Stout
Brewed: 1/5/13

Size: 6.5 gal
Efficiency: 87.47% (measured)
Attenuation: 80.0% (estimated)
Original Gravity: 1.098 (measured)
Terminal Gravity: 1.020 (estimated)

Color: 30.69 SRM
Alcohol: 10.42%
IBU: 69.1

Water (all in ppm):

Ca: 56  Mg: 10  Na: 26  SO₄: 31  Cl: 39  HCO₃: 162

Ingredients:

  • 17 lb 2-Row Pale Malt
  • 1.5 lb Oats
  • 12 oz Roasted Malt
  • 10 oz Caramel 80°L
  • 8 oz Belgian Chocolate Malt
  • 6 oz Black Patent Malt
  • 4 oz Midnight Wheat Malt
  • 2 oz Caramel 120°L
  • 1.5 oz Warrior (16% AA) – Boiled 75 min
  • 2L starter, Whitbread Yeast (Wyeast 1099, US04, etc)
  • Added to secondary: 2 mexican vanilla beans, 2 dried ancho chile peppers, 3 ceylon cinnamon sticks, 4 oz cacao nibs.

Schedule:

  • Mash @ 149 (1.30 qt/lb ratio)
  • Mash out @ 170
  • Batch sparge (water pH adjusted)

Listening:

  • Radiohead – The Bends
  • Wilco – Wilco, iTunes Session
  • John Butler Trio – Three

Notes:

  • 1/5: Brewed a Saturday afternoon at my parent’s house, with my Dad’s help.  Prior to the brew, built a new high-flow water filter that can travel with me.  Determining the water adjustments took quite a while, as their water profile is different than the Buffalo municipal that I’m used to.  Similar, but different.
  • Chilled to 68, pitched yeast.  The beer got to take a road trip back to Buffalo with me.  Put a blowoff tube in.
  • 1/6: This morning, I woke up to a blowoff tube struggling to keep up with the aggressive, sugar-laden fermentation.  I ended up having to unseal the lid and set it on top of the fermenter.  This allows gas to escape without building pressure.  If pressure builds, then the krausen grows and you run the risk of clogging your airlock/blowoff tube and having a fairly messy explosion.  It’s a little touch and go right now, to be honest.  If I were smart, I would have split between two fermenters.  I’m not smart.
  • 1/8: Fermentation is surprisingly, somehow complete.  Gravity is 1.022 (right on track) and might drop another point or two.  Very sharp smell of diacetyl, but not to worry – this yeast should clean it up no problem.
  • 1/12: Diacetyl aroma is much diminished.  Smells roasty, malty, biscuity.  Can wait to get this racked and the spices added.
  • 1/23: All activity in the fermenter seems to be pretty finished.  Did a quick, 4 hour crash cool on my 25 degree porch then brought back inside.  Racked to secondary.  Gravity 1.021
  • Spices added.  2 dried ancho chile peppers (halved), 2 mexican vanilla beans (halved, split down the middle), 3 ceylon cinnamon sticks and 4 oz cacao nibs.  Brought 8 ounces of water to a boil.  Added spices to a mesh hop bag.  Killed heat on water, then dropped the spices in.  Covered and let sit/steam for ~5 minutes.  Transferred everything (water, too) into the secondar.  Used a piece of sanitized monofilament (fishing line) to tie the spices to my better bottle’s neck.  Will be able to remove once desired character is achieved.
  • 1/27: Spice character was already plenty pronounced after only 4 days.  I really didn’t want to overdo it, so I opted to bottle the beer tonight.  Everything went well, but it did remind me that bottling is a total pain in the ass.
  • 2/27: Tasting.  I’ve had a few bottles of this over the past few weeks.  While I’m incredibly happy with the result, I am disappointed by the carbonation level which is fairly low.  I even added some additional priming sugar to each bottle, to no avail.  Regardless.  This beer pours an inky, opaque, deep brown (almost, but not quite black) with a thin coating of tan head.  Head dissipates quickly.  Nose is of dark chocolate, roast and a bit of smoky pepper.  Nice.  Upon the first sip, I almost have the sensation of being kicked in the mouth with a deluge of flavors.  Chocolate, roast, vanilla, coffee, cinnamon, dark cocoa, some sweetness, a bit of malt and a hint of pepper.  All of a sudden most of those flavors fade to the back and give way to a medium pepper spiciness, which hits the tongue like I imagine a cup of hot cocoa with chile powder might.  Spiciness is not at all overwhelming, but quickly moves to the back of the mouth and coats the throat.  Sip after sip is a great repeat and the spiciness does slightly build as I drink on.  All of the flavors linger and contribute, but the chipotle really steals the focus.
    Verdict: wow.  Couldn’t be much more pleased with this one.  The only thing I might change is to balance the spices a little more (maybe a little less pepper), but its pretty damn excellent as-is.  So complex, so much going on, but surprisingly smooth.  My theory on modifying the water to counteract the roasted malt’s acidity seems to have been a home run.  Awesome.  Want to brew again.
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