Ales And Lagers: Interview With Greg Noonan

Interview with Greg Noonan

Ales and Lagers:
An interview with author/brewmaster, Greg Noonan
by Byron Burch

Greg Noonan has been brewing for a number of years, but he really burst on the national homebrew scene in 1986 with the publication of his book, Brewing Lager Beer. This book discussed such topics as water treatment and decoction mashing in ways home brewing literature had not yet experienced. However, even as he gained recognition as a force to be reckoned with in home brewing, Noonan was already planning to leave the ranks of the amateurs. These days, most of his time is spent as owner/brewmaster at the Vermont Pub and Brewery in downtown Burlington. I caught up with him at the 1989 American Homebrewers' Association national conference at Fort Mitchell, Kentucky. Our conversation included my friend (and fellow Sonoma Beerocrat) Mark Hillestad.

BB: Tell us how you got started in home brewing.

GN: I started in 1977. I lived in an area, up in rural New Hampshire, where I knew a number of friends who were dedicated home brewers. I didn't really start till some of them moved away, and I couldn't drink their beer anymore. Because of them, though, I was fairly familiar with the home brewing process. I was a little bit familiar with breweries, and I knew they didn't brew from malt extracts, so I drove to my nearest homebrew outlet, which was about two hours away, and told the man I wanted to start home brewing. I asked him what I needed so I could get started brewing from grain. Essentially, he laughed and told me I was totally insane, and that he wasn't sure he wanted to deal with cranks. However, after a bit of arguing back and forth, I ended up buying your first book, Fred Eckhardt's book, and another one, along with about 15 lbs. of grain malt, and went home and tried to brew. There were a lot of problems. The home brew market was obviously geared to malt extracts, and the literature didn't provide much guidance in grain brewing, especially as to the equipment needed, and how to set it up. My first sparge consisted of stretching a straining bag over a frame made with coat hangers, and pouring water through it into the bucket below.

BB: I think people are sometimes surprised to realize the quality of the grain beers you can brew with relatively primitive equipment. Nancy and I made some excelent brews with just a five gallon pot, a ten gallon pot, and a sparge bucket that consisted of a plastic bucket with a spigot and a nylon straining bag. We have a more sophisticated system now, but the difference is in convenience, not in the quality of the beer.

GN: I'm afraid I wouldn't make any claims at all about the quality of my first efforts, but now that home brewers have learned how to brew from grain, what you say is very true. Equipment is nice for the convenience of the brewer, but it's not always apparent in the end result, the beer.

MH: So you started right out with grain brewing, which led you toward an interest in lagers, which led you to write Brewing Lager Beer. Are you moving back toward ales now?

BB: That's a very good question, because in looking over the list of beers brewed at the Vermont Pub and Brewery, it seems to be something of a mixed bag.

GN: Back in my early brewing days, once I discovered Dave Line's Big Book of Brewing, that became my bible, as it was for just about everyone else interested in grain brewing. It was a great book. However it didn't address a lot of issues related to either brewing in the United States, or brewing lagers.

MH: There are only a couple pages in there about lagers.

GN: And it becomes pretty obvious, once you start looking at brewing, that the British, and the other older ale brewing traditions, are rather limited as to how far they go in terms of technology. However the Germans, with their madness for precision, tended to break things down, to carry lager brewing to extremes, but extremes that are very linear and plotted out. Consequently, it seems to me, at least, that when you look at lager brewing, you're really looking at the whole of brewing. If you look at ale brewing, you really miss all of the developments of the lager brewers. When you look at lager brewing, it's very obvious where all the earlier, less scientific, types of brewing fit in, so every home brewer ought to read Dave Line's book, but then there was a gap in the literature for those who wanted to go on and get more technical.

BB: Sad to say, Dave's books have gone out of print recently, so there's some question whether or not they will still be available much longer.

GN: That's unfortunate, and rather surprising. Dave Line did a great job in covering the ales, and I wrote Brewing Lager Beer with complete deference to him. I enjoy, and brew, all different styles of beer, but I didn't feel there was any need to rehash what he had done.

BB: How long did it take you to write the book?

GN: Forever!

BB: I very well understand the feeling, but when did you actually start?

GN: It must have been 1980 or 1981. As you may remember, Fred Eckhardt was beginning to disengage, and his issues of "Amateur Brewer" were starting to come out less and less frequently. "Zymurgy," of course, had appeared on the scene, but the early issues didn't hold much promise.

BB: Agreed!

GN: Anyway, at that time, I started writing the book. I took all the things I'd been researching and wrote a first draft, and sent it to C.J.J. Berry of Amateur Winemaker Publications in England. We had a verbal agreement for publication, and he had indicated to me the areas they wanted fleshed out in it, but that was just at the point where his wife became ill, and shortly afterward, he sold the business. I went back to work on it and didn't hear from him for six months or so, and then I got a notice that all current projects were being suspended until the new owners could evaluate policy.

So, not having a publisher anymore, I took all my material in a shoebox to a regional homebrew conference in 1983, and showed it to Charlie Papazian, who was very helpful. He encouraged me to realize that there was a whole audience developing out there, that was looking for good, technical information. He made me put in recipes. For some reason, I hadn't really wanted to get into the question of styles. My feeling was still that people should just brew what they wanted to brew. I've since turned around 180?F, because I've realized there are far more opportunities for learning if you abandon that kind of thinking.
It's amazing how often, if you talk to prizewinning brewers about how they developed their recipes, they'll tell you they looked up so-and-so's first place recipe in Zymurgy, and brewed it, but decided to make a change or two. Each year the beers get better and better because of the competitions.

MH: It's just a bunch of on-going research.

BB: And a fun way of doing it. Speaking of the importance of styles, there's no question in my mind that an absolutely seminal event in the history of home brewing in this country was the publication of Gary Bauer's article on raw materials in the All-Grain "Zymurgy" special issue.

GN: Yes! That was one of the best things ever written!

BB: In fact, after reading it for the first time, I called up Charlie and said, "What are you guys going to do for a living, now that Gary has made the magazine unnecessary with just one article?" (laughter)

Anyway, you finally got the book published in 1986, and the rest, as they say, is history. It quickly established itself as a classic, but you were already thinking about owning a brewpub.

MH: So, if you had the time now to go back and do one batch of recreational brewing, would you do an ale or a lager?

GN: That whole concept is pretty hard to imagine these days, but I'm sure that, if I was doing a five gallon batch of beer for my own enjoyment, very honestly, it would be a decoction mash lager. I felt the decoction mash was a very nice setup for home brewing. I used to set up right next to the kitchen stove, with my picnic cooler to the left of the stove. I had a one quart pyrex measuring cup, and a kettle on the burner, and I was ready to go. I'd use the measuring cup for stirring the mash, as well as drawing off the portion to be boiled. It was an ideal tool for drawing off the thick part of the mash by pulling it against the side of the cooler, lift it up and drop it in the kettle. Meantime, I'd have the heat on, starting to stir the kettle with the right hand. So for me, it worked out well.

BB: How do you determine how thick the "thickest part of the mash" is supposed to be when you're drawing it off?

GN: I would never have enough liquid with the grain that it would be standing above the grain, though I would have enough in there to fill all the spaces in the grain. Like I said, for me a pyrex measuring cup was an ideal tool.

MH: I use a strainer as a scoop, holding a saucepan underneath it to retrieve the liquid that drains off. I try for something approaching cereal consistency.

GN: Sure, that'd work.

MH: By the way, I was talking to someone last night, who's just getting ready to try his first decoction, and what he was really worried about was burning the grain.

GN: I don't know why this is, but one of the interesting things I learned is that if you continue really stirring actively, and moving the grain around while you're heating it up to the boiling point, anything that sticks a bit will come unstuck during boiling. Once boiling gets started, everything loosens up. You'd think it would really burn on there, but it doesn't, so stir like crazy while raising the temperature, but as soon as boiling really begins, you can leave it alone.

I always felt decoction mashing was a really convenient system for me. Obviously, it added time to my brewing process, but it wasn't a whole lot of time, enough that it ever bothered me.. I could brew some really good beers with it, whether I was doing a one, two, or three decoction mash. I was blessed with great soft water to brew with, so I had a lot of advantages. I never had to worry about having a particular minerally character to the water that would force me to brew a particular type of beer, or to seek another water source for my brewing.

BB: Tell us about the water.

GN: It was really interesting. It was an area where they mined a lot of calcium carbonate, but on our side of the mountain there was nothing but granite, and the well went through about 100 feet of clay.

BB: So, if you'd lived a little further over, you'd have written a book on stouts.

GN: Right. Anyway, we had about 40 parts per million calcium sulfate, 20 ppm. calcium carbonate, and the whole thing added up to about 80 ppm. total hardness.

BB: With water like that, did you ever bother making anything besides pilseners?

GN: Yes, actually, I brewed a lot of Octoberfests with that water, even though that well was very different than the Munich water supply. I felt that style has such a range of malt flavors that, in a way, the water becomes less important than with a lot of other styles.

BB: While we're on the subject of water, I have to say that the chapter on water treatment was a tremendous boon to home brewers, and in it you give water composition tables for various cities. Where did you get your information, and is there a similar source for ales, or were you only working with lager sources?

GN: One of the real complexities of this topic is the fact that you can look at a number of different sources for the water characteristics of particular cities, and they will be vastly different. Obviously, place/time is important, the season of the year, and so on, so any such tables can only be guidelines, rather than absolutes. Actually, Great Britain is one of the easiest places to get information on. There is a book published called The Water Atlas of the British Isles that has a lot of information in it, some of it useful to brewers.

MH: Do you see any differences in the profile of the sweetness of the malt, distinguishing between decoction and infusion mashes?

GN: It's far more important what you do with the saccharification temperature of the mash than it is whether you do a type of mash with a protein rest. Obviously, doing a protein rest, all other things being equal, will give you a better extract. There will also be a tiny increase in "grainy" flavor. I don't see that as a problem, by the way. I taste almost no homebrews that are grainy flavored to any significant extent. I do taste a whole lot of commercial beers that are grainy flavored, and I think the cause is oversparging.

BB: By "grainy" are you talking about the "astringency" that Charlie Papazian says comes from boiling grains?

GN: Yes, exactly, and again I think it's a misperception that boiling grains is the root cause of that astringency. I think it's not true that home brewers are getting graininess from either oversparging or from boiling their grains doing decoction mashes. I've boiled mashes and had them stick right to the bottom of the kettle from not paying attention, brewed with them anyway, and I haven't had much, if any, graininess or non-phenolic astringency, not nearly as much as I taste in a lot of commercial brews, where I believe the cause is oversparging, and that's what I taste as an oversparging flavor. I've had people tell me certain people's homebrews are oversparged, and tasting them, I don't agree.

BB: The usual tendency for home brewers is, if anything, to undersparge. I heard you say, the other day, that you think sparging should take about an hour. I have to confess that mine usually take between 30 and 45 minutes.

GN: That's okay. I was talking about people doing 20 minute sparges, and even there, if somebody is willing to give up yield, no problem.

Getting back to the question about mashing methods, I don't feel that decoction or infusion or whatever type of mash program you have is especially important to the malt character of the beer in terms of sweetness. I think those sorts of considerations are more important in terms of such things as what kind of head you have on the beer, or the protein basis of the beer. For instance, in a decoction mash, once you go through a protein rest, a lot of the protein that's encapsulating starch is being dissolved away and broken up, so your yield is better.

BB: I've been hearing second-hand reports from people who've taken classes up at UC Davis, that Dr. Michael Lewis has been insisting recently that absolutely nothing happens to the protein during a protein rest.

GN: I find that a bit hard to accept, because, as one speaker mentioned today, if you overdo a protein rest, you end up with beers that tend to be very thin tasting, and they won't either form, or hold, a head. That seems to indicate that something's going on during the protein rest. Dave Line, I beleive, called it an albumin rest, which seems like an apt name, because what you're really trying to do is take those albumins, those larger mid-range proteins, and break them down, not quite to amino acids, but to a stable, soluble protein that's going to contribute to your head. I can't agree that nothing happens in a protein rest.

BB: Dr. Lewis said some other interesting things in his talk the other morning also. He was saying that in designing a beer, you ignore the whole question of whether it's an ale or a lager, the least relevent question of all, and concern yourself only with the flavor profile you're looking for. At first, I thought that was great. It echoed some aspects of your talk, and some ideas in that yeast article of mine I showed you.

MH: And then he stressed the idea that the ingredients are what's important, over and above process, which was okay, but then he went on and lumped yeast in with the process, rather than with the ingredients. It seemed like he was making the yeast incidental, and I can't buy that. And when Hans Bilger (the brewmaster at Oldenberg) got up and asked, "What about fermentation and yeast?," it seemed like it was brushed aside.

BB: Right! That's what bothered me. I can't imagine considering yeast only as part of the process.

GN: As points of reference, I think the terms "ale" and "lager" are very valid. Even if you can't pull everything apart and make the concepts hold water in terms of precise, rigid constructions, at least terms like those are handy.

BB: Try and imagine poor Dave Welker trying to organize an event like the national competition without them.

GN: As far as yeast is concerned, though, take this ale we've been tasting. There is no way you can make this beer with Wyeast's #2007 (St. Louis Lager) and get anything remotely approaching this flavor profile.

BB: That's for sure! By the way, this was fermented with Wyeast's Altbier yeast. I used to be a skeptic, but I've become convinced that yeasts are extremely important. Of course, one reason for skepticism was that we used to have such universally bad yeasts that which one you used really didn't make that much difference.

GN: Yes, Paul Farnsworth's study that was published by the Foam Rangers Homebrew Club was very interesting, but what it showed about the dried yeasts was nothing that hadn't been stated, and shown, before by others, the dried yeasts were contaminated. We know from other sources than just Paul that what he's saying is exactly the truth. I think we all recognize, now that we're using liquid cultures, that a lot of the flavor problems: phenolic problems, wild yeast problems, and bacterial problems, we all used to get, didn't come from anything we were doing wrong, except that we were stuck with a really substandard product.

BB: Speaking of the new liquid yeasts, have you done much playing with #308?

GN: Yes.

BB: Do you like it?

GN: Yes and no.

BB: That's just about exactly what George Fix said, and I agree. Actually, I don't think I know anybody who's worked with #308 who wouldn't answer just about the same way.

GN: Actually, I haven't had some of the flavor problems other people have had, but I've had viability problems when trying to repitch. I like #2206 (Bavarian Lager) a lot, but it's not an impressive fermenter by any means.

BB: What temperature do you like to pitch your yeast at, by the way?

GN: Well, one of the liquid yeast suppliers has recommended to always pitch the yeast above 70?F, regardless of the kind of yeast, but I'm not really sold on the idea of pitching something at 70 that's going to ferment in the 40s.

BB: I really had some sulfur problems with #308 for awhile, and I'd just about given up on the yeast. Not too long ago, Cy Martin suggested that I try cold pitching it. I've only had one chance to try it so far, and it seems to have worked.

GN: I've noticed that anytime you take a yeast that's been working at a higher temperature, and you then ferment it at a significantly lower temperature, even an ale yeast will give you that sulfury nose. I'm not really sure why, but the yeast seems to get acclimated to a certain temperature, and if you drop it down, it just starts pushing out the sulfur. Commercial brewers generally grow their starter five to ten degrees warmer than the wort will ferment at, so that it's warm enough to get the starter going, but cool enough to eliminate dramatic temperature changes.

BB: The whole question of which yeasts work best with which beers is one I've been particularly interested in lately.

GN: It will probably take a couple more years yet before a consensus emerges. This beer here has to be made with either #308 or #2206 (Bavarian Lager).

BB: Right, this is a maibock Mark, Paddy Giffen, and I made using #2206. By the way, I see a maibock on the beer list from the brewpub. Tell us about yours.

GN: I'm still working on the balance of that beer. It's a sweet, lightly hopped brew with an O.G. of 1.062. I'm not totally satisfied yet, but it's been a very popular beer.

BB: Talk a bit about your other beers.

GN: Okay. "Burly Irish Ale" is our house ale, really. It's an amber beer with some sweetness, not too hoppy. It's sort of designed to be the introductory beer for people who are just starting to make the switch up to "real beer." It has about 35% munich malt, and about 15% caramel 40 malt. We mash at 152?F to keep a bit of sweetness in it. The hops are subdued, and we use Willamette. We don't dry hop, but we add a small amount of Willamettes right at the end of the boil. We ferment it with the alt yeast from Wyeast. It's our most popular beer.
"Rock Dunder Brown Ale" is our mildest flavored beer, as a brown ale should be. It's definitely not in the Newcastle style. In terms of classic styles, it's probably more of a "mild" than a "brown." It's very conservatively hopped, even more so than many mild ales. The dark color comes from a relatively dark caramel malt. Mashing is at about 150?F. There's a bit of roastiness to the flavor, but not enough to give it much real character. It's just a real pub session beer.

MH: Do you find yourself incorporating lager brewing techniques in your ale brewing?

GN: Yes, but all our mashes are straight infusion, because we don't have the capability of stirring the mash.

"Kellerbier Lager" is a well hopped lager, somewhat in the Vienna style, but with hopping more like a pilsener, about 36 B.U. It gets its color from munich malt, and has a O.G. of about 1.053. Mash temperature is 152 ?F. It really is rather a strange hybrid. The kettle hops are Perles and Tettnangs. If you're looking for a good, economical, lager-style kettle hop, I think Perle is as good as there is.

"Pub Porter" is designed to approach Guinness Stout, perhaps a bit more full bodied, and not quite as acrid tasting. We use a small amount of black malt we roast ourselves. That seems to give some of the character of smoked malt. It also has Cara-Pils, caramel 40, caramel 60, and chocolate. It's an assertive beer for people who are ready to step toward that sort of thing, and it's been a hit. It's nice to see that sort of market developing.
We're also going to be coming out with our "Grand Slam Baseball Beer", which is just a fun name for strictly a "lawnmower" beer. We use ale yeast, and it's a relatively dry, well-balanced, summer beer.

BB: I see from the list that you're doing a "light" beer. How did that happen?

GN: Well, we carry a number of bottled imports besides our own beers, and it just drives me crazy that Amstel Light outsells the others ten to one. So, remembering something Joe Ortlieb once said, that to make a light beer, just add soda water, I asked one woman if she wouldn't rather like to try our light beer, "blended at the tap." So that's what we tapped out, 50% soda water, and 50% Kellerbier, and she loved it.

MH: Sounds like a good R and D department at work.

GN: Right. I'd never waste my brewing time to brew a "light" beer, but doing it this way at least saves having to carry all those Amstel Light bottles back down to the celler. We call it "Joe Light" in honor of Joe Ortlieb for suggesting the idea.

BB: Other than the question of soda water and light beer, did you have any problems adjusting from the great water you used to brew with to your water source in Burlington?

GN: Not too much. We have good water, though I do have to watch it a bit, because the pH varies from 6.9 to 7.1. That doesn't seem like much, but 6.9 is acid enough that it begins to take a mash near the edge of the range the enzymes in the mash like to work at. This water, also, is relatively soft, and I'd have a hard time adding calcium sulfate to harden it for making a pale ale, for example, because that would add to the acidity. I'd probably have to add calcium carbonate first to add alkalinity.

BB: So, now that you've passed all the way through home brewing, and gone commercial, are you working hard enough?

GN: Yes. People really have no idea what running something like a brewpub is like. I figure our base work week is probably 66 hours now that we're open, though it was quite a bit longer while we were getting set up.

BB: It seems like we've covered lots of territory. I'll probably think of six things I should have asked as soon as we get back to California.

GN: Well, if you do, there's not much question where I can be found.

The preceding article (© 1989 Byron Burch) first appeared in the Fall, 1989 issue of "The Beverage People News," an occasional publication of The Beverage People.