Nine months ago I was propping up the bar in The Ginger Man in New York City. It was late. I had found a stray hour at the end of the evening to sample the atmosphere and the beer menu, and I was chatting with the bartender as I settled my bill, preparing to leave. But then somebody said, “Excuse me, are you English?”
I smiled, expecting this to be a short exchange about whether I knew someone’s distant cousin in Hull. It was the beginning of a two-and-a-half hour conversation that took me perilously deep into the next morning.
The couple I got talking to, up from Florida for a long weekend, were like an American version of me and my wife in 20 years’ time. It felt like looking into a time-distorting mirror. A statistician would have no time for this, but it was… uncanny.
After all, this was happening in New York’s most renowned beer bar. Perhaps, in this place, it is not so strange that a London homebrewer with a penchant for Belgian beer should meet a couple that regularly hosts vertical tastings of dozens of sour brews for their friends? And maybe, if you are that much into beer, there is a high probability that you think in a certain way, and appreciate certain other things, too?
Maybe. But I like to think that our last words, as we stepped out onto East 36th Street, prove this was a genuine statistical outlier, engineered by the beer gods.
“So, what brings you up from Florida to New York in September?”
“We’re going to the opera tomorrow evening. That’s another of our great passions!”
“Oh, what are you seeing?”
“There’s a new production of Tristan und Isolde.”
I laughed. Not only beer, but opera. Not only opera, but Wagner. Not only Wagner, but…
“I am envious,” I said. “You must be going to hear Nina Stemme sing Isolde. I saw her in that role at Covent Garden a few years ago.”
We’d done two-and-a-half hours on beer, brewing, Brexit, Trump, travel… but we hadn’t even started on music. There were at least another two hours to fill (and three beers to consume) on Wagner alone. Alas, I knew that I had a pile of proofreading waiting for me in seven hours’ time, and I was already four beers to the worse. As I wished them an engrossing time at the Met, my Doppelgӓngers disappeared around the corner into Fifth Avenue.
My new friends helped me navigate The Ginger Man’s list of American beers. One was from a brewer local to them, Cigar City. It was a peanut-butter Imperial Stout – I suppose it must have been the one they called “Peanut Allergy!” Before even a drop had passed my lips I told myself that I simply must make something like this at home. It was silky, warm and boozy, and the aroma was lusciously good, if you like peanut butter, chocolate and coffee. And, let’s be honest, who doesn’t?
This weekend, the time had come at last.
The big question with this beer is, of course, how to get the peanut-butter aroma and flavour without making it a fatty mess with zero foam retention. It is not obvious. A mere four weeks after tasting one of the best sweet stouts I’d ever had, I experienced one of the worst. This advertised itself as a peanut-butter beer, and I was excited at the thought of enjoying those taste sensations again. However, this brewer had simply dumped a load of peanut butter into the brew, perhaps during the boil, perhaps even into the cask during the racking – it was difficult to tell.
Either way, the end result was genuinely disgusting. It was an oily mess, with no foam at all. Gobbets of peanut floated and bobbed about in my glass. Imagine someone vomited into your beer. That is disconcerting when you’re trying to have a nice chat with a friend.
Still, it got me thinking about how to recreate the Cigar City experience without veering into sick-beer territory.
The internet abounds with tales of intrepid homebrewers emptying huge pots of peanut butter and hanging it in muslin bags for months on end, letting the fat drip slowly away. Frankly, that kind of dedication is not my scene. But there were others who whispered mysteriously about a powdered form of the sandwich spread, called “PB”. They bought it from health food shops, or those places that sell vast tubs of edible grey dust to musclemen.
The beer gods intervened again. My local supermarket, out of the blue, started stocking this powdered peanut butter. What is more, they were stocking the reduced-fat version, “PBFit”. That, I thought, is surely the ideal thing. I bought a pot. The following week, the supermarket reduced them to clear. I grabbed three more pots (use more than you feel comfortable with, was the advice from online homebrewers). I haven’t seen PBFit there since: I think I must have been the only customer for it.
My recipe was always going to ramp-up the chocolate malts for that “chocolate-peanut butter cup” effect. That meant ramping-up the crystal malt, too, to get the right balance of sweetness. A decent slug of roasted malts at 1,000-plus on the European Brewing Convention (EBC) scale would ensure a deep black colour and a touch of coffee bitterness.
I knew the beer would need a high level of glycoproteins in the mash to combat the oil from the PBFit and retain a decent foam: a generous helping of wheat and oats should serve; I also mashed at a slightly higher temperature than normal.
I wanted a strong, fairly sweet stout, but not quite at the “Imperial” level. I aimed for 60-70° of specific gravity, and came out with precisely 60° – although I must confess, the extent to which the fat from the PBFit interfered with my hydrometer reading is unknown to me. My assumption is that the reading would be higher than usual, if anything.
I called the beer “A1 Nut Job”. It’s got nuts in it. It originated in an encounter that made me think of Sigmund Freud and his musings on Doppelgӓngers and the “unheimlich”. I like to imagine Jack Nicholson saying it in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
“A1 Nut Job” (June 2017)
In the mash:
- 4kg of Maris Otter malt
- 600g of Chocolate malt
- 500g of Oats
- 500g of Crystal 100 malt
- 300g of Wheat
- 200g of Roasted Barley malt
- 100g of Carafa III malt
- 90 minutes of rest
In the boil:
- 40g of Northern Brewer hops for 60 mins
- 1kg of PBFit peanut butter powder for 5 mins
- 60 minute boil
Fermented with Wyeast Laboratories 1056 “American Ale”
Starting Gravity: 1.060 / 15° Plato
Finishing Gravity: 1.016
The resulting wort was certainly intriguing. The hot break was immense: my copper was left with a good two litres of oily, gloopy, runny, dark-brown peanut butter at the bottom. Even so, later on the cold break was still clearly visible as a two-centimetre carpet in the fermenter. I began to have my doubts. What would the poor, tormented yeast make of this?
After taking a sample for the starting-gravity test, I poured it into a snifter and had a taste. Cold coffee aromas. The peanut was subtle, but there.
I always find it tricky to judge how a black beer wort is going to turn out as a finished beer. What stood out with this one, unsurprisingly, was the mouthfeel: thick, smooth, oily. Strange, for sure, but not unpleasant in a black stout. Again, imagining how this would transform with the addition of an alcohol kick and carbonation was difficult.
The yeast seems happy, anyway. I gave it a good head start – my Wyeast packet was puffed-out to bursting point before I pitched it – and this morning the brew is bubbling cheerfully. This could be ready to rack next weekend, at which point I will update this post with the final gravity and ABV, and any other worthwhile observations.
My prediction: this is likely to be a strange but interesting brew, uncanny-but-rewarding. Not unlike the memorable encounter in The Ginger Man that set off its long gestation.