KALAMAZOO, MICH — One of the first things you figure out as a brewer is that commercial brewing is all about the numbers. I have always been a left-brained person, so this stark fact gave me great comfort.
My left hemisphere was always happy thinking about strike temperatures, attenuation curves, IBUs, and oxygen concentrations. Keep the numbers where the numbers should be and the Boatyard Brewing Co. (BBC) brewing world would be great. Then, as I found consistency in the production of our ales, something happened. The right side of my brain woke up and started knocking on my daily thoughts. I would hear a little voice say, “Get out there, use those creative juices and let’s make something grand.”
At some point those voices made their point, and I began to view our brewing more as a form of art and less as a expression of scientific practicality. Brewing had become a way to express myself in a collaboration of wort and yeast. The question was now, “Do I have anything worthy to express?” I began this creative quest by digging out an old recipe that I had been working on for a few years. It was to be a unique porter that I originally started crafting at the Saugatuck Brewing Company (SBC) with Barry Johnson. The idea was to create a porter that was poured and consumed on Christmas Eve. A porter that would help celebrate the friendship and family bonds that made Christmas special in my family.
While working on the recipe at the SBC, my first thought was vanilla. It seemed that everything in our house had vanilla in it, as my parents created cookies, cakes, and fudge. So with our first try we added just enough vanilla to fill the nose, but not enough to overwhelm the palate. It was a nice porter, but not worthy enough for Christmas Eve.
The development of my special porter was stalled as we began the preparation for Christmas in December of 2010. We had the big family Christmas at our house and I was still whining about the vanilla porter I made for Christmas Eve. In the middle of one of my whines my father said, “Son, you should make a shoo-fly beer for Christmas.” For those of you who didn’t grow up in central Pennsylvania, shoo-fly usually refers to a pie made from black-strap molasses. My first reaction was a hardy chuckle, but my father’s comment set into motion a series of ideas that energized my artistic flair. I set off on a journey to use all of the flavors of my Christmases past infused into that vanilla porter. I laid in bed that night and thought of the Christmas Eves I had been lucky enough to enjoy. I thought of the food and drink that had been fussed over by four generations of my family. The food and drink that brought joy to those beautiful nights.
I took that same vanilla infused porter recipe from a few years earlier and began some pretty unique tweaking. First I needed that lovely molasses. You just can’t celebrate Christmas in Pennsylvania without molasses. I think it is even a state law that you must consume a few ounces every December or they will cancel Groundhog’s Day. So I tossed out a little of the base malt and replaced the sugars with a wee bit of molasses. For those who have never used molasses, it is heavenly in dark beer, but a little goes a long way.
I also remembered the smell of rum and raisins each Christmas as rum cakes baked in the kitchen. To capture those flavors in the beer, I caramelized plump raisins in the oven and then deglazed the pan with a generous portion of dark rum. That pan sat all night, melding the flavors from the dried fruit and rum. I added that mixture towards the end of the boil and let the magic begin. When sampling the wort, I knew this brew was really close to what I wanted. An amazing vanilla extract from Chicago was added after fermentation and our Christmas Eve Porter was born. Last Christmas Eve, we enjoyed this porter for the first time and created a tradition we hope to carry on. On Christmas Eve, Dan and I took our bottles and delivered them to friends and family. No note or card, just a little gift left by the front door from friends who wanted the flavors of Christmases past to come alive again. A porter that would help all of Santa’s helpers with those “some assembly required” gifts.