The beers brewed at Pittsburgh’s Draai Laag Brewing Company are a combination of fruit, fermentation techniques, cask aging, and the spirit of experimentation. Dennis Hock, founder and brewmaster, uses fruit for the majority of his beers, and no two are e
DENNIS HOCK WAS SO FASCINATED
with brewing and fermentation when he was in high school that his mom let him start brewing beer … as long as he didn’t drink it. He relied on his senses and helpful neighbors to hone his techniques until he was of age, taking notes and dialing in his recipes with the skill of a seasoned brewer. And in 2009, after a deployment in Europe, undertaking studies in winemaking and food sciences, and earning advanced science degrees, Hock founded Draai Laag Brewing Company. His experiences have given him a depth of expertise when it comes to fermentation techniques, fruits, and spices.
“Anybody can make a fruit beer. You can dump fruit into any beer, and it tastes like the damn fruit. But if you [create] it in such a way that it’s just a little bit of everything—it’s a much more balanced experience,” Hock says. His brewing process involves matching his beers and ingredients with fermentation techniques, casks, aging, spices, and other fruits.
Designing a Recipe Around Fruit
With so many ingredients involved and so many possibilities when it comes to fruits, getting started might seem daunting. Hock strategizes his fruited recipes two ways.
One option is to build a recipe around a specific fruit that he has in mind, with accompanying fruits, fermentation processes, and adjuncts to support it. Atomic Pomme, for example, is an apple ale that was inspired by caramel apples and has a Werther’s candy characteristic to it. The apples are added during the mash, and the beer is aged for more than a year, then blended with another similar batch in second-use bourbon barrels for the caramel notes.
Hock’s other recipe-design method involves casks. “Casks are magical,” Hock says. “They truly are. You could put a beer into a cask and it might be mediocre at best, and if you give it enough time and enough care and you pay attention to it enough, ultimately, it might come out completely different, and so beautiful, that you’re like, ‘You know what would set this off is if we blended a little bit of X fruit into this to really heighten the tones that we’re appreciating in this.’ ”
He shared an example of how he’s done this with his Elderberry Fig beer. “We took a beer that was just a standard barrel-aged beer, and we put it into a cask. Although it wasn’t anything special, somehow, some way, some really dark spice notes started to project through it.” The dark spice notes gave Hock an idea.
Draai Laag uses local ingredients whenever possible, so Hock contacted a friend who grows fig trees that were brought over from Italy in the late fifties. He also thought of the high concentration of elderberry bushes that grow in western Pennsylvania. With both of these fruits in mind, as well as the base beer and the flavors that were coming in from the cask, Hock was able to create a medley of ingredients that was dark and delightful.
“You’re going to pick it up and go, ‘There are a lot of dark flavors in there that remind me of figs and elderberry’ and whatever else there might be. But ultimately, we’re creating a much more complex beer, and we’re creating levels and layers of flavors rather than [just one] flavor. That’s a case where we did it after the fact, not knowing what it was going to do.” He further explains that brewers can take a sweet beer and add fruit to it, but there are a lot of different acids and flavors that you might pick up that create new and different flavors.
With so many types of fruits available, brewers have many options at their fingertips. Hock is dedicated to selecting local fruits when he can and has notebook
“Anybody can make a fruit beer. You can dump fruit into any beer, and it tastes like the damn fruit. But if you [create] it in such a way that it’s just a little bit of everything—it’s a much more balanced experience.”
upon notebook on what’s worked and what hasn’t when it comes to techniques used. Fruit has a few … quirks (see “Fruit (Not Fruity) Flavors,” page 73), and he’s learned more than a few tricks.
His experience in winemaking has taught him about the ways that different climates, temperatures, and altitudes will affect the fruits grown in an area. A white grape that’s grown in California will have a completely different flavor from the same grape grown in Germany, for example. The California grape will have delicate flavor and thin skin, whereas the German grape will have thick skin and robust flavor. So when selecting fruits for brewing, it’s important to know one of the challenges he faces in using some of the fruits grown in Pennsylvania: “If it’s locally grown, because we’re in a northern climate, typically we’ll have a higher acid content rather than a higher sugar content. So that also plays into what we’re looking for in a beer. For instance, raspberries. If you buy raspberries in the South where they have a longer growing season, the raspberries have a higher sugar content and less acid content—almost like what you see in wine world.”
Hock likes to use blackberries, which have a sulfuric character. In winemaking, he learned that blackberries typically have a lower nitrogen content when they grow. So when brewing with blackberries, he adds nitrogen to dissolve the sulfury character. The way to do that is with diammonium phosphate (DAP), a water-soluble salt that is typically used in wine. Stir it in and within minutes, the sulfur is gone.
“Knowing the fruit, knowing how it ferments, getting to know it just like I know my yeast strains—that benefits everybody across the board.”
Fruit and Fermentation
Fermentation adds a different element to fruit flavor because it opens up a new realm of possibilities. Hock works with a variety of fermentation techniques and works with indigenous yeast strains, in keeping with his dedication to local ingredients. Draai Laag harvests yeast from the skins of the fruit they use or from the air and surrounding terroir or even from a seventeenth-century monastery cabinet. Nothing is off limits.
Their fermentation techniques are many times the focus of the beers, with the fruits playing a supporting role. Hock explains, “If you’re going to make a sour cherry beer, more than likely you would use Brettanomyces lambicus. B. lambicus typically projects a cherry characteristic if it’s fermented correctly in the right environmental conditions. So by supporting it with not only your fermentation but also with the fruit aspect, you enhance the fruit aspect of the beer overall.”
One of Hock’s most intriguing experimental beers involves cave-aged bleu cheese imported from France. He studied the cheese and the process of making it for two months, then discovered over time that Penicillium roqueforti, the strain that makes bleu cheese so distinct, doesn’t like to go through alcoholic fermentation. But under the right conditions, the mycelia impart the bleu cheese characteristic to the aromatics of the beer.
“So knowing that we wanted a slightly tart, funky beer, we thought, ‘What goes better with bleu cheese and that slightly tart funkiness of a balsamic vinaigrette than peaches?’ We took a ton of peaches, threw them into the beer, and did a tertiary fermentation on the peaches prior to putting the beer into the cask with the Penicillium roqueforti,” he says.
They didn’t fill the cask all the way to the top because Penicillium roqueforti is microaerophilic, which means it needs oxygen to ferment. However, as the bleu cheese grew its mycelia, which formed almost like a blue-veined pellicle over the top of the beer, the bleu cheese character- istic stayed throughout. The resulting beer was Grand Blü (pictured above).
Malt and Fruits
Draai Laag uses local maltser Appalachian Malts in nearby Portage, Pennsylvania. Hock selects the malts in each beer depending on how aggressive the fruit is. True to his experimental spirit, Hock found a unique combination for his strong Scottish-style ale, Ragnarok, which has a sour edge and clocks in at a hefty 8.8 percent ABV.
The malt for Ragnarok was peatsmoked, and he added three types of fruit. “Most people would be like, ‘Who the hell would ever put fruit and peat-smoked malt together?’ We did.”
He used blackberries, raspberries, and black currants, which are on the more robust side of the fruit spectrum and hold their own pretty well in a beer. Hock worked with these flavorful fruits and mixed them with a malt that was lightly smoked (it isn’t a smoke bomb by any means), which created harmonizing notes.
“We combined it with the traditional Belgian [spontaneous] fermentation, which is what our background is in, and we added those three fruits because we thought they complemented the malt very well. And it did, and for the most part, people dig the beer. It’s so different that people are all about it, and it’s awesome.”