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Monday, October 31, 2011

A call for clones

Without access to the same quality of fruit as their professional counterparts, home winermakers have trouble replicating the greatest examples of a given style (think First Growth Bordeaux). The same is not true for homebrewers, who can and often do produce excellent clones of their favorite beers. If that sounds like you, we want your recipe.

By Steve Siciliano

A Beringer’s Nights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was the first wine I fell in love with. I remember how I was intrigued by its deep red color, by the aromas of oak, vanilla and cedar and the flavors of black cherry, licorice and tobacco. Because I was captivated by that wine I wanted to know everything about the grape that produced it. I learned that cabernet sauvignon is the main component of the great wines of Bordeaux and that some vintages of the incomparable First Growths from that famous region can age gracefully for over a hundred years. I read how wines made from cabernet sauvignon put California on the winemaking map. I read about the early efforts of California vintners such as Robert Mondavi and Warren Winiarski, and how Winiarski’s cabernet from his Stag’s Leap Winery beat Bordeaux’s First Growths in a 1976 blind tasting. Over the years I have drunk some great cabs including a beautiful Mondavi Reserve and a bottle of Cask 23 from Stag’s Leap.

Since I’m a home winemaker who loves cabs it’s only natural that I have a desire to produce them in my home winery. While I have made some very good wines from cabernet grapes grown in California’s Lodi region, there’s no way I could ever make a wine that exactly replicates the quality of a Beringer’s Knights Valley, a First Growth Bordeaux, a Mondavi Reserve or a Stag’s Leap Cask 23. The reason is simple—incredible wines come from incredible fruit, and the fruit that is available to the home winemaker never comes from the top-notch vineyards. Despite the skills set of a home winemaker, he or she will never be able to clone a specific wine produced by a professional vintner.

That certainly is not the case for the homebrewer who wants to clone beers made by professional brewers. Long gone are the days when the only ingredients available to a beer making hobbyist were cans of stale hopped extract, a few varieties of grains and hops and a couple strains of generic dry yeast. Today’s homebrewers have such a wide range of ingredients available to them that they can, with the appropriate skills and a good clone recipe, replicate almost any beer made by the professionals.

It’s no mystery why homebrewers love to clone professionally brewed beers, even ones that are easily obtainable. For one thing it is a good test of skill. If you are able to approximate the flavors, aromas and colors of an Oberon or Centennial IPA it is tangible proof that you are doing things right. And then there are the beers that are not easily obtained—the ones with limited distribution, the rare one-offs, and the push-the-envelope offerings produced in miniscule quantities by innovative brewers. If you can’t buy these beers you might as well make them.

I’m constantly amazed at how sophisticated the hobby of homebrewing is becoming. Select customers have acquired the know-how to make stellar sours and some are brewing with wooden barrels. I have tasted many excellent examples of hard-to-brew styles such as lambics, Bavarian Weises and Czech pilsners, which is concrete evidence that all homebrewers have the potential to replicate just about any beer produced by the professionals. The only problem that remains is getting ahold of a good clone recipe.

Of course there are books that focus on clone recipes (like this one or this one), and an internet search will usually provide you with dozens more. Helpful though the books may be, they can be dated and seldom include recipes from small, regional breweries. What if you want to replicate a Founders Canadian Breakfast, a Dark Horse Scotty Karate or a Michigan Brewing Screaming Pumpkin? You might be able to find recipes for these beers on the internet but it has been our experience that some online recipes are just plain awful.

In response to this I would like to begin a file of clone recipes formulated by Siciliano’s customers. If you have a tried-and-true recipe, one that you formulated after picking the brain of a professional brewer or one that you perfected after trial and error, bring it in or send it via email and we’ll include it in the file. We’ll give you full credit for the recipe and in return you’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that the fruits of your labor are contributing to the growing pool of knowledge of the local homebrew community.

1 comment:

  1. I have had some luck brewing a clone recipe (i.e. Moose Drool, Breakfast Stout) but not developing one. The best resource I've found is the podcast "Can You Brew It" with Jamil Zainasheff. The podcast usually includes an interview with the Pro Brewer, the recipe, and an on air tasting comparison. They usually do pretty good but will admit when they miss. I'm impressed with how many pros will give a recipe out. I guess it's a measure of self confidence knowing that this is not the last, best recipe they will come up with!

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