Humble Plastic Cups Holding Blends of Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Force
Edit: To quote Mike Philbrick there was an “operator error” on our original article. Imperial Force will be released on draught December 26 at 7 pm at the Country Corner in East Seauket and in bottles around the new year.
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Rain fell at the 2013 Brewers East End Revival Brew-Off award ceremony. The day began sunny and with chaotic activity taking place in and around the location, a small American Legion Hall in Saint James, New York. As modest as the space and event were, lots of planning had been devoted to assuring this iteration of the annual event was well organized and run to the Beer Judge Certification Program standards. Additionally, steps were taken to include food, drink, fun and prizes for volunteers who would be sacrificing one of their Saturdays in May by helping to set up, pour beer and organize results. Through sheer lack of interest from other club members, Beer Loves Company’s very own Kevin ended up as the “Competition Coordinator” which meant by proxy Alicia was on the job too. Though trying, the day would prove enjoyable for us, A+K, as we saw homebrewers and attendees both discuss brewing and cheer each other on when awards were handed out to those who had crafted fine ales, lagers, ciders or meads.
The prize most coveted by the homebrewers who enter their beer to be judged is the Brewer’s Cup. You may be asking, “Why?” Simple: the amateur winning beer is given the honor of being brewed professionally by a local brewery. To win this award means a hobbyist, very often an aspiring brewer, is given the chance to see a recipe which they developed scaled up in size, produced and released for sale and distribution. That homebrewer can then go into a local bar, bevy or the brewery itself and order their Brewer’s Cup beer on tap, a dream for most who take up the pastime. This prize was the very thing which made Kevin volunteer and Alicia tolerate it so well. We both were excited to contact a local brewer who would attend the event, judge the beers and eventually create the winning recipe at their facility.
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Three years prior to us taking the reigns as Competition Coordinator, Brooklyn native Bobby Rodriguez visited the Great American Beer Festival in Colorado along with several other Long Island beer (and malt) enthusiasts. G.A.B.F. is the premiere beer-centric event held in the United States. Hundreds of breweries make the pilgrimage to Colorado every year to pour samples for the thousands of thirsty attendees and to take part in a well organized competition. One of the more talked about G.A.B.F. medals is the Pro-Am in which breweries throughout the country choose, through sanctioned competition, a homebrewer to work with on a recipe that is then made and sold commercially. B.E.E.R.’s Brewer’s Cup is the local answer to this prize.
As Rodriguez and friends experienced the wonders of G.A.B.F. one beer caught his attention: Avery Brewing Company’s Meph Addict. As if a bourbon barrel aged Imperial Porter was not enough to tweak the minds of beer geeks, the extremely limited release Meph Addict has coffee added to it as well. Tasting this ale put the gears in Rodriguez’s mind in motion. When he returned to Long Island a recipe was formulated as an homage to the flavors of Meph Addict. Even though Rodriguez was at the time new to homebrewing his mind was set and he went to work. After tasting the finished product however he decided it “wasn’t ready,” so his dark inky brew sat a year in bourbon barrels and longer in kegs before it was served. “As this is a strong sipping beer it can be aged for several years,”said Rodriguez and indeed he left his beer to slumber for a three years before finally sharing it with people and entering it in the 17th Annual Brew-Off. We were lucky enough to sample this Herculean homebrew prior to and at the event. This was a complex and rich brew made to be savored and sipped. Quite impressive stuff for a homebrewer to achieve.
Then Homebrewer Bobby Rodriguez Accepts the Brewer’s Cup as PJBC Owner Mike Philbrick Watches
Port Jeff Brewing Company was just over a year old when we approached owner Mike Philbrick with the idea that he should brew the 2013 Brewer’s Cup. He is someone who is easy to get along with and does not to shy away from a challenge. Philbrick began as a homebrewer and member of B.E.E.R. He then attended the Siebel Institute of Technology in Chicago before he started his brewery in Port Jefferson, New York. We both enjoy the company’s Porter, an ale we feel is the flagship, and were ecstatic when he accepted our offer to judge and brew the winner at his downtown location. He also decided to compete in the chili competition held in conjunction with the festivities, keeping many balls in the air.
The Brewer’s Cup is one of the final events to be judged at each annual Brew-Off. This is because the best beer brewed by a card carrying Brewers East End Revival member from each BJCP category is put forth for sampling by the brewery representative before a decision is made. Judging all of these categories takes an entire morning and afternoon with sessions often occurring the night before. Inside the cozy American Legion hall Mike Philbrick sat and tasted several beers before narrowing his choices down to two: a Flanders Red or a barrel aged Imperial Porter. Continuing to take the road less traveled Phlibrick discarded beers which he thought, while good and easier to brew commercially, were not “the best”. He knew full well that whichever choice he made his young brewery was in for a challenge.
Rain had not begun to fall until the awards ceremony was about to start. The competitors, judges and staff along with their family and friends were forced to huddle together under a small pop-up tent village. With each passing category and award handed out anticipation built for the announcement of the Brewer’s Cup winner. Under one tent Philbrick chatted with current members of his former club while Rodriguez was making the rounds giving notes to those who let him sample their beer and heading back and forth to pick up ribbons he received for placing in several categories. It seemed as the drops were falling hardest the winner was announced and Rodriguez proudly walked forward to accept his prize from Port Jeff Brewing Company’s brewmaster. The two were now together on a journey that had begun years ago at GABF and at the time neither knew it would be another year and a half before the finale would be reached.
If you have met Bobby Rodriguez you will have noticed one thing about him: he is opinionated. As such there was a back and forth discussion about how his homebrew recipe would be scaled up into what would eventually become known as Imperial Force. Both Rodriguez, Philbrick and then head brewer Jeff Noakes were aiming to be as faithful to the recipe Bobby shared, which was not exactly what he brewed, as possible. “We changed a couple things based on what I know about the system plus a few things that he thought should be tweaked a bit too,” is how Philbrick describes the recipe formulation process. With the hops, malts and yeast selected they now needed to find a slice of time in their busy schedules when they could all get together and produce it. As the organizers of the competition and of course writers and beer drinkers too we were eager for the brew day to come.
Bobby Rodriguez and Former PJBC Head Brewer Jeff Noakes Prepare to Pitch Yeast
Finally a date was chosen when Imperial Force was to be brewed. Being friendly with both Rodriguez and Philbrick we were invited down to the brewery, an offer we gladly accepted. We arrived bright and early but not before Noakes had his grist (ground grain) ready to go into the mash tun (kettle where water is added to the grain for sugar extraction). Rodriguez was a later arrival and dove right in alongside Noakes to check how the brew was coming along. There is a lot of preparation which goes into making a beer but the actual brewing process itself is periods of intense action followed by lulls of waiting for the right temperature or a period of time to pass before moving on to the next step. It leaves ample time to chat while standing amongst the large imposing equipment surrounded by the aroma of steeping grain.
A brew based on something like Meph Addict is audacious. The bold scope of this beer meant that the mash tun was maxed out with grain and after the wort (sugary water which is fermented into beer) was pumped in to the boil kettle Rodriguez had quite a time shoveling all of it out into garbage bags for disposal. Here we again enter the story as Kevin had a little part to play in the brewing of this beer by pitching in with the mash tun clean up too. At the same time the mash tun was being emptied out the wort came to a boil. Hops were added to the kettle and each brewer took turns along the way reading the gravity of the beer with a refractometer. Everything was chugging along as planned. After the boil the beer was cooled and transferred to a fermentation tank into which yeast was pitched. Rodriguez commented on his experience by saying, “It showed me how similar I was brewing at home compared to a larger commercial brewery,” an observation which would inspire him to found the recently licensed Po Boy Brewing Company.
In the time between the hands on professional brew day and Rodriguez opening Po Boy the beer was given a name: Imperial Force. This is a name that reflects not only it’s strength but also the driving effort behind brining it from thought to reality. Oh, and of course there is a nod to Star Wars thrown in for good measure. While christened, the beer was not yet ready to see release. In a small brewery fermentation space comes at a premium and Imperial Force was forced to march to the next stage in it’s lifecycle. The burly brew was moved while still fermenting from the stainless steel tank in which it was born to 4 fifty-three gallon Heaven Hill whiskey barrels. These barrels were “second run” which means that previously aside from being used to age bourbon they also housed beer ; in this case Port Jeff Brewing Company Porter.
A portion of the Imperial Force batch was pulled for a cameo appearance in a “virgin” or non-barrel aged form at the PJBC second anniversary party. This iteration was finished with some help from champagne yeast and force carbonation. Rodriguez was in attendance at the celebration and was happy with the way the beer was progressing but agreed with Philbrick’s sentiment, “This really is a beer that time helps.” We were happy to taste the Imperial Porter that day and Kevin made sure to tell his mash tun emptying tale to anyone who would listen. Following this brief moment in the sun all things Imperial Force went silent. Safely the rest of the Force was tucked away, slumbering and getting to know it’s new whiskey infused surroundings just waiting for the right time to reemerge.
Bobby Rodriguez Serves Mike Philbrick a Sample of “Virgin” Imperial Force at PJBC’s Second Anniversary Party
Finally in July 2014 there was a disturbance in the Force. Philbrick, like any other head chef, tastes his creation along the way to make sure everything is processing nicely. “The first three or four times we tried it I wasn’t impressed,” he says of the brews character. Again it was left alone to mingle with the oak and whiskey which enrobed it but the sampling continued. In May a taste was pulled and head brewer Matt Gundrum thought it was not there yet saying, “It was missing something,” with Philbrick adding that it didn’t seem quite right. This behemoth still was in it’s infancy and had yet to reveal it’s true nature.
The tandem went back to the barrel in July and the page had turned, the beer was delivering on the homebrew version’s promise. The difference was staggering according to Philbrick who thought, “Like whoa! This is a good barrel aged beer now.” They felt that Imperial Force was ready and could be packaged and sold but it was the wrong season to do so. To Philbrick an Imperial Porter is a beer which would not interest most people looking to grab a brew for the boat or the beach. This decision proved a positive one as the over the next few months the samples they tasted continued to improve. The brew developed and matured with the brewmaster noting, “As time continues to tick by it just gets better.”
Eventually the pair decided to move the beer from it’s oaken home and to carbonate it for bottling. Once it was migrated and carbonated the beer was again tasted and blended. We had the chance to stop by the brewery one day for a tasting of several barrel aged beers, one of which was Imperial Force. Upon it passing our lips we felt the full impact of all the hard work, thought and effort which went into producing it. Notes of toasted oak, roasted grain and warming bourbon moved around our mouths. “There is a great amount of oak in it and a good amount of vanilla in it,” added Philbrick when jointly sampling the brew. To see the end of the journey for Imperial Force which had begun life as a nugget of an idea years ago in Colorado finally approach us on the horizon was as wonderful to imagine as it was to taste the Port Jeff Brewing Company version.
The Force finally strong within this Imperial Porter, it has been bottled and is ready to see release. There will be just over five hundred bottles available exclusively from Port Jefferson Brewing Company with some on draft for sampling (no growler fills). When asked for his thoughts on this epic Rodriguez offered, “I hope people realize at the time that I made the Imperial Force I was still a fairly new home brewer.” He continued, “It was quite difficult but obviously not impossible to make such a complex beer at home,” which he sees as an inspiration to brash homebrewing cowboys out there. While Imperial Force was made by PJBC in conjunction with Rodriguez before he was a professional brewer they do not see brewing it again. “We are not going to brew it again. It’s Bobby’s beer and hopefully he does,” says Philbrick. To that, Rodriguez replies, “What I just might do is make a very small batch of about one barrel and store it easily at the location and forget about it for 2 years just like I did at home.” We think that’s a great idea.
Owner/Brewmaster Mike Philbrick Samples Blends of Imperial Force
Like Luke Skywalker you do not know the power of the dark side until you have sipped this warming winter winner. Something of this magnitude begs to be shared with friends over good conversation. Mike Philbrick said something genuine which struck us, “The beer geek in me says buy two,” speaking to the craft fans desire to sample a beer while “fresh” then let time work some mysterious forms of alchemy on a bottle’s contents only to pop the top in a year or more and savor the flavors cellaring have imparted to the brew. With the small part we played in this tale and a heap of curiosity we plan on procuring several bottles of this porter as it marches forth from Philbirck’s Port Jefferson brewery around New Years and suggest you do the same. Imperial Force will also be on tap December 26 at the Country Corner in East Setuaket starting at 7 pm. Be sure to comment and let us know what you think.
Imperial Force Label