It was a simple step. A chinchilla-soft launch. Barely a ripple in the Matrix.
But the wheels are turning.
Thursday night at the Brewer’s Tasting Room in St. Petersburg, FL, the public had its first opportunity to drink a beer that I made. It was the launch party for Vendetta Blood Orange Wit.
This dramatic tale of life, death and citrus began well before brew day. When presented with the opportunity to brew a pilot batch on BTR’s 1-bbl system, my mind raced through eight years worth of recipes and ideas. You only get one shot at your first beer.
After consulting my culinary consigliere, Nicole, we settled on a long-forgotten recipe we brewed once in January 2011, a blood orange wit. The original inspiration for this beer came about as Nicole wanted to brew a series of beers that featured ingredients that were grown in the various European countries of our heritage.
The first beer in this series was a “Sicilian” recipe, a nod to my great grandparents. After a few minutes on the Google machine, Nicole found a few ingredients that are commonly grown in Sicily that were a fit: chamomile, coriander (seed of a cilantro plant) and blood orange. Hmmm, sounds like a great wheat beer!
This combination seemed a perfect fit for our debut. It’s a refreshing wheat beer, perfect as the Florida spring starts to ramp up in late February, and blood oranges are in season. Done and done!
Just prior to brew day, we zested and juiced a dozen blood oranges and crushed five ounces of coriander seeds to go in 30 gallons of beer. Blood oranges are very pulpy and didn’t yield much juice. Next time I make this recipe, I’m going to add more juice to give the beer some reddish color.
We brewed the beer on Sunday, February 9. It was a gorgeous day and everything went very smoothly. It took about six hours from start to clean-up. The beer came in at 1.048 original gravity and we made a huge yeast starter, so we decided that giving it three weeks would be plenty of time to ferment and get ready for a release on February 27, just before Tampa Bay Beer Week.
Plenty of time, right? Well, maybe not so much.
The following Tuesday I went by BTR to check the gravity. It was sitting at 1.024. Uh oh.
My plan was to let it ferment for a week to 10 days, add the citrus and spices to sit for five days, then keg and condition for four. With the beer just over half way through fermenting, my window was suddenly closing rapidly.
We took evasive maneuvers and moved the fermenter out of the fermentation chamber, where it was sitting at about 65 degrees, and moved it into the outer hallway where it could hang out in the low 70s. We also rocked the fermenter like a hurricane to wake the yeast up a bit.
I came back to BTR that Friday night to check on the beer. Three days later, it was now at 1.020. Still too high, but it was now or never. I gave the yeast my best motivational speech, dropped in the zest, coriander and chamomile flowers, and closed it up.
A Belgian Wit should finish pretty dry, anywhere from 1.008 to 1.012. The goal is to make a clean, drinkable, refreshing beer. Belgian wits have enough perceived sweetness from the fruity esters of the yeast and the added citrus and spices. If the final gravity is too high, then it will be too thick and cloying, and it won’t be nearly as refreshing.
So there was a long way to go from 1.020 on Friday down to where it needed to be by the time it had to be keggd. Sunday afternoon, I went by again to see if the beer would be serviceable. Lo and behold, the yeast made a valiant push and got down to 1.012! Way to go, yeast!
I moved the fermenter to the cold refrigerator to crash cool it for a day before kegging, and all systems were go.
Nicole and I went out to BTR on Wednesday night before the release to take a final taste of the beer and check the conditioning. When we tried a sample from the keg, it was exactly what we hoped for.
It was citrusy and aromatic, juicy but finished clean. You could taste all the elements individually: the blood orange, coriander and chamomile, but no single one dominated. It was eminently drinkable.
Despite the great initial tasting from the night before, when I woke up Thursday morning I started to get a little nervous, and the usual doubts started to creep in. Is everyone going to like it? What if no one shows up? Will people regret paying money for it?
I knew that the beer turned out well and that it was a very drinkable and accessible style, so I decided to let the night unfold and the beer will take care of itself. It’s the risk you take when you put yourself out there in the public realm. You have to be ok with the feedback, positive and negative.
When Nicole and I arrived at the Brewer’s Tasting Room at 6:30, there was already a crowd from a law firm that was having a happy hour there. Many in the party were already drinking the Vendetta. It was a proud moment.
The night reminded me of my wedding reception. It was a steady stream of guests and well-wishers. I barely had time to refill my glass and post a photo on Instagram! Nicole and I made our way around the room like emissaries at a United Nations summit.
I received some great feedback from the servers and bartenders that people were speaking very highly of the beer. I was really appreciative of all the support that I received from our guests and random people alike.
I had several people tell me who were not “beer people” tell me that they really enjoyed it. The best comment was from a friend, who will remain nameless, who said, “I would drink one of these over a Budweiser.” You have to trust me that that was a compliment!
My favorite moment from the evening was when someone walked out with two growlers of Vendetta to take home. Forget bottle shares at homebrew club meetings or scores in beer competitions, the ultimate affirmation of a beer is when someone will pay with their own money to take your beer home with them after they’ve already tried a pint.
On Thursday night, I didn’t make any money. There was no big speech or fanfare. I got to see my beer on a tap wall with the likes of Cigar City, Founders, Great Divide and Rogue. And I felt like I belonged.