Sep 06 2012

Sometimes you can be wrong about a beer.

When Jos suggested that we do a ‘stein’ version of the Red Rocks beer we originally brewed for the 24/24, I distinctly remember telling him to fuck off. ‘Steinning’ is an ancient brewing method dating back to a time when beer was brewed in wooden vessels. Instead of applying external heat (tricky with a wooden kettle), hot rocks would be thrown into the wort to create a rolling boil.

Cool. But seriously, why would I bother super heating rocks to make my beer.

Ancient people used to do all sorts of crazy shit. Example, trephination was once a popular way to cure migraines, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to rush off to Bunnings to pick up a trephine next time I’ve got a headache.

I got it in theory. Conventional modern brewing techniques bring the wort to a boil around 100˚c, but rocks heated in a fire can reach many hundreds of degrees creating a super boil when plunged into the wort. The motivation behind recreating this ancient brewing practice is to create a rich toffee character in beer through the caramelization of wort sugars on the super heated surface of the rocks. But still, it does sound like a ton of effort to go to considering the modern brewer has a whole swag of other ingredients and techniques at their disposal to recreate this kind of character in beer.

So I admit it was with a certain amount of reluctance that I finally agreed to give it a crack. Jos’ enthusiasm for the project was infectious, and at the end of the day who doesn’t like having a nice big fire.

The first step was to find our rocks. Our original idea was to use some of the red rocks from Red Rocks on Wellington’s South Coast – the place that originally inspired the name of our beer. Here’s where it gets tricky. You see, it turns out that red rocks from Red Rocks tend to explode when heated. Crap. But all was not lost. Apparently, according to the geologists we spoke to, the rocks 100 meters down the coast from Red Rocks, although not red, were less likely to explode. No promises you understand, just less likely.

My growing confidence for the project was only temporarily dented by Jos’ announcement at this point that he would actually be in America for the week we were planning the brew (which struck me as a safe distance to be in the event of exploding rocks).

           [Jos at said safe distance in the Stone Brewery in Escondido ]

Heating rocks in a great big fuck-off fire in the forecourt of an old petrol station in Aro Valley takes a lot more organisation and planning than you might think, but we managed it. A good heap of non-red rocks were collected from the South Coast and this pile supplemented with a load of stone grill rocks. A fire permit was obtained and a roaring manuka wood fire was stoked up out the front of the brewery. We even managed to get Rob, a fireman I know, to come and spend his day off with us while we played with matches. All seemed to be going well. There had been no explosions and the rocks, after a morning in the fire, had reached over 500˚c.

But after all this I still had my reservations. Would it be worth it? Would this massive effort pay off in the flavour of the finished beer or would it all have been a load of buggering around for nothing?

Any reservations I had evaporated the moment the wort hit the hot rocks. I have never seen a boil like the one these rocks created. As the column of steam cleared after the initial roar of contact, the boiling wort looked like lava - like rich red toffee lava. It was one of those moments of pure joyous excitement when you know for a fact that you’ve pulled something off, that it’s worked, that despite everything that could have gone wrong it’s gone just right. I love that feeling and the stupid indelible grin that goes with it.

And the flavour is there, unmistakably, in the beer – rich juicy toffee sweetness from all those caramelized sugars, layered with Red Rock’s distinctive lush hop aroma. We’ve been calling it a hopfen-stein bier. I don’t know if that really is a style but I do know it is definitely one of the most fun beers I’ve ever made.

Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

Massive thanks to all involved. To the geologists who gave such considered advice, to Phil for embracing the madness on his first week at work, and to Rob, for taking a day off from putting out fires to light one and letting us play dress ups. Cheers. 

Special thanks to Corie for filming and editing a video of the brew, which you can enjoy here, and to local artist Evan Purdie who painstakingly hand painted the awesome Red Rocks Reserve poster (and also Pernicious Weed Killer Hops one). 

You can view more of Corie’s work here including the horror film ’Fetus 5000’ shot in the brewery for the 48 hour film competition earlier this year and we will let Ev’s genius speak for itself…

Very limited amounts of the beer are available still. If you see it in a bar, grab a pint. It might be a while between drinks. For a list of bars pouring our beer, check out our Facebook page every Friday afternoon for a fresh update.

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