By Chris Jennings
For the Oregon Beer Growler
In today’s growing world of beer, it seems we’re constantly bombarded by an insane array of different styles. Naturally, some are better than others. And among the winners is an elusive concoction that has often gotten a bad rap. The style I’m referring to is the apple beer or graff. This unique beverage, certainly familiar to fans of Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” series, takes the flavors of a traditional dry cider and blends them with a lovely mild ale. Not a cider and not quite a beer, it’s a whole new world of brewing possibilities — particularly was we approach the apple harvest.
The graff can be misunderstood and commercial executions can lead palates astray. Some recent iterations have shifted the flavor profile toward that of a cider or straight up apple flavor. But in the past, these brews were not a cheap way to try to sell cider; instead, they were more of a balanced beer-to-cider experience. This was achieved by using a more complicated and delicate technique to bring together two different forms of fermentation. While it’s possible to make a harmonious graff, it will require more work and planning than simply adding apple flavoring to a beer.
When those first homebrewers set out to create a graff, probably after a few pints one afternoon, they may have decided to simply add cider to a beer, post-fermentation. That’s likely how the snakebite was born. After such a “Eureka!” moment, the next natural course of action would be to ferment the beer and cider together. But this has its own list of problems, the biggest of which is choosing the proper yeast. Though all yeast will ferment the sugars in beer and cider, some of the flavors that are produced can be very specific to each finished beverage. The optimal strain for beer and cider together tends to be a British ale yeast. It will accentuate the malt flavors in the beer while subduing the tart, bitter notes of the apples.
Now that the yeast is out of the way, it’s time to focus on the apples. Not all of them are well-suited for cider making. In fact, you don’t need to use whole apples at all. Pick up some cider juice from the farmers market or grocery store — just be sure there aren’t any added preservatives. Only about half of your finished volume should be cider juice. For instance, if you’re making a 5-gallon batch, only 2.5 gallons (or less) of cider juice is necessary.
The beer base can be a little more complicated. While there are many beer styles, some won’t taste as good mixed in with a cider as others. Ultimately, though, it all has to do with personal preference and there are no hard rules. Traditionally, the base beer would be an English mild. Whatever you go with, make sure it has a low alcohol content, a light roasted note, little-to-no hop bitterness and a pleasant, biscuit-like aroma. Once blended with the cider juice, fermentation should produce a malt-forward dry beverage with a smooth apple finish. After electing your beer base, make a half-size batch. Once you’ve blended the wort, cider juice and yeast, it will ferment as normal and possibly become your next award-winning batch.
Stories from the print edition of the Oregon Beer Growler.