Episode 7: Maple Beer

Wed 23 Apr 2008 - Filed under: Not a Journal., | Leave a Comment | Posted by: Michael

Western MA being the land of maple syrup, and spring being the maple sap season, I thought I’d run a couple of experiments brewing beer with maple syrup. This is just the kind of decadent weirdness that homebrewing is perfect for. You’d be hard put to find a maple beer available from even the tiniest and most daring of commercial brewers, but for a homebrewer, all it takes is the will and a bit of thinking.

Maple trees start running sap as if by magic around mid-February, long before anything like spring is in the air. The ground is still frozen, but somehow the trees are able to draw deep groundwater up through their roots and feed it out to their extremities, helping them to limber up for the growing season. Saw off any reasonably-sized branch, and you’ll get sap dripping out at a slow, steady pace. The sap of deciduous trees, unlike that of evergreens, isn’t gooey or sticky at all. Catching a drop on the tongue yeilds a refreshing woody flavor, watery and only faintly sweet. Sugar maple sap is the sweetest, and even in the best seasons the sugar concentration never gets much above 5%.

I had initially planned to try brewing straight from sap, having had it on good authority, and with the promise of fantastic results, that sap can substituted for water in any beer recipe. I even managed to procure a good 5 gallons of it (depicted at right). Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that maple sap does not keep at room temperature, and in fact turns sour and and completely horrible if left unrefrigerated for even a few days. Don’t try it. If you can, go straight from the tree to the mash tun.

Not having that luxury, instead I got my hands on a half-gallon of grade A light amber maple syrup. Expensive stuff. Well, not for me–mine was free, ’cause I gots the connections (I traded some of my Honey Porter for it). But the internets would have charged me $25-$30. And with good reason: making one gallon of maple syrup requires forty gallons of sap.

Then I asked myself, what style of beer would stand up to/be complimented by the flavor of maple syrup? I was tempted towards heavier, darker beers–a mild stout, maybe, or a Scotch ale? But in the end I decided strong malt flavors would compete with rather than compliment those of maple syrup, and I settled on a pale ale and a nut brown. Like so:

Maple Pale Ale (modified from this recipe at BeerRecipes.org) – makes 1 gallon

  • 1 gallon water
  • 11 oz dry amber malt extract syrup
  • 3 oz 80L Scottish crystal malt
  • 2 oz dry wheat malt extract
  • 5 oz grade A light amber maple syrup
  • 1/3 oz Kent Goldings hops
  • 1/4 tsp gypsum salt
  • London ale yeast

Add 1/6 oz hops at the beginning of the boil, another 1/12 oz after 30 minutes, and the last 1/12 oz after 50 minutes. The gypsum also goes in right at the end, as does the maple syrup. More on that below.

Maple Nut Brown (modified from this recipe at brewery.org) – makes 1 gallon

  • 1 gallon water
  • 1.4 lbs pale malt extract
  • 1.3 oz 40L crystal malt
  • 1.3 oz 90L British crystal malt
  • 1.3 oz biscuit malt
  • 2/3 oz chocolate malt
  • 8 oz grade A light amber maple syrup
  • 1/3 oz Kent Goldings hops
  • 1/12 oz Fuggles hops
  • London ale yeast

Add the Fuggles and 1/6 oz Goldings at the beginning of the boil, and the remaining 1/6 oz Goldings after 45 minutes. Again, I saved the maple syrup until the last ten minutes of the boil. The rationale here is that (as with honey), maple syrup has certain delicate qualities of flavor and aroma that would be lost by subjecting it to a long boil. I only want to boil it just long enough to ensure it gets sterilized by the heat.

I also used a maple syrup solution (1/4 cup water mixed with 1/4 cup syrup, combined, brought to a boil, then cooled) for my bottling sugar, in place of the usual powdered corn sugar, in hopes this would also boost the maple aroma and flavor.

And the results? Intriguing, and thoroughly satisfying, though not without room for improvement.

The nut brown, with its larger allotment of maple syrup, turned out very powerful indeed. The sugar component of maple syrup, being mostly sucrose, is easily consumed by yeast, meaning that very little sweetness remains in the finished product because all the sugar has been replaced with alcohol. My liberal use of maple syrup made for a very alcoholic brew–so much so that the kick, in my opinion, outbalanced the sweetness and body just a little, and my nut brown actually tasted closer to a British strong ale. Which isn’t a bad thing at all. And the maple flavor was readily evident, and I thought matched nicely with the nutty tones of the biscuit and chocolate malts. Were I to brew this again, though, I think I’d want slightly more malt to compete with the maple. The thing to do, perhaps, would be to modify a recipe for strong ale by reducing the amount of pale malt extract and replacing it with slightly more than its equivalent in maple.

The pale ale, on the other hand, actually came out really well balanced. The maple flavor was present but subtle, and I was surprised at how nicely the woody/nutty maple flavor played with the fruitiness of the hops, resulting in an almost Belgian character. The fact that I used slightly more priming syrup in bottling this brew may also have contributed to this effect, in that I could actually detect a bit of maple scent in the pale ale’s aroma, whereas it wasn’t evident at all in the nut brown. This is a beer I want to drink a lot of, and the fact that I’ve only got a gallon of it makes me sad. Next time: five gallons!

Maybe I’ll try this experiment again in the fall.

If the recipes and ruminations above look like gibberish to you, please refer to a good homebrew how-to book such as The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, or have a look into the Literary Beer back catalog. There’s a much more in-depth step-by-step brewing process in the Honey Porter entry, and more about bottling at Bottling Your Homebrew. Good luck!


No Responses to “Episode 7: Maple Beer”

  1. Michael on May 16th, 2008 8:39 pm

    Just wanted to make a note for my own future reference:

    This evening I opened the last of the Maple Nut Brown, about 50 days after bottling…and the character of this beer is completely changed. The balance between sweetness and alcohol flavors, which earlier had been harsh, is now mellow. The maple flavor is almost the dominant note, but it still tastes like a beer. It almost tastes like a nut brown! This is close to the darkest ale imaginable without crossing into stout territory. Which makes me wonder what a maple stout would be like…good I bet…if I waited long enough.

    Which is the note I wanted to make to myself:
    Next time, condition in bottle at least a month before drinking. Fool.

  2. Michael on May 16th, 2008 8:43 pm

    PS Maybe the last 3 weeks of the abovementioned providential aging took place at refrigerated temperatures, 40-50F.

  3. lcrw on May 21st, 2008 10:53 pm

    And I want to note that we tried it the other night and it was fantastic. Definitely worth making again!

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